By beating the Miami Heat on Monday, the Timberwolves moved to 4-3 on the season. They’ve also tied the 1978-79 New Jersey Nets for getting their first four wins by three points or fewer. Improvement in close games from last season is nice but the Wolves are making their wins unnecessarily difficult.
While a respectable team, the Heat are not of the caliber of the other teams that have pushed the Wolves to the ropes. The Oklahoma City Thunder are a fringe contender. You could argue Miami is on par with Utah but the Heat were without star Hassan Whiteside against the Wolves. That should have opened up an advantage inside without Whiteside’s shot blocking.
That was not the case. Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson combined to shoot 11-for 15 on the evening. This is exceptional production but not many attempts. Meanwhile, Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, and Jimmy Butler shot a combined 19-of-54 from the field. While Teague and Wiggins made pivotal plays in crunch time, the Wolves could have made their lives easier. Many of the plays Teague and Wiggins made were tough shots at the rim or contested floaters. There may have been no other way with Whiteside on the floor but Towns went underutilized.
Whiteside is also one of the best rebounders in the NBA. He led the NBA in rebounds per game a season ago and had 22 in the lone game he played this season before sustaining a knee bruise. The Wolves were fortunate he did not play on Monday. The Wolves were nonetheless outrebounded by 10. Bam Adebayo led the Heat with 13 but five players had five or more boards. Despite being a rookie, Adebayo is a load. He’s 6’10 but his wingspan measured 7’2 3/4” at the NBA Draft Combine. That kind of length can be a problem and Adebayo proved to be one on the glass.
Heat guard Dion Waiters was nearly unstoppable. Waiters found himself able to get into the paint at will. Whether it was Andrew Wiggins or Jimmy Butler, the Wolves had no answer for Waiters. If the Heat needed a bucket, they gave it to Waiters in isolation who consistently blew by his defender. Coupled with a lack of help defense, Waiters had an efficient 33-point, five-rebound, and four-assist game. Each time the Timberwolves seemed to pull ahead, he pulled his team back in the game.
It’s not that this win is worth less because of how it was achieved. But it’s not a win that makes you feel good about the team. Still, moving above .500 is important when playing in a difficult conference and they accomplished that. There were still a few positives to be found.
For instance, the Timberwolves dominated the turnover battle 24-16. Forcing that many turnovers against anyone is a great formula for success and can cover up many ills. Despite having 27 opponent points scored off of their turnovers, the Wolves turned the Heat’s into 31 points.
Coming into Monday’s contest, the Heat had allowed the fewest 3-point attempts and makes in the league. The Wolves irreverently went 11-for-23 from beyond the arc from a team that only gives up 19 per game. Making four more 3’s than the Heat allowed on average is encouraging. Few were bigger than Jamal Crawford’s make with three minutes to play in the fourth to give the Wolves a seven-point lead or Towns’ to put the Wolves up six in overtime.
Lastly, the play of the team’s new additions was positive.
Once again, Crawford’s play saved the game. Crawford contributed 13 of the team’s 37 bench points on the night. He managed to go 6-for-6 from the line, dish out three assists, and hit a big shot. Not only did last year’s Timberwolves lack this type of bench player, they lacked this overall production. If the Wolves have a productive bench, their ceiling for this season is much higher. The reserves are much less of a question when Crawford is playing well.
Teague was 3-for-5 from distance and finished with 23 points, 11 assists, and five rebounds. His ability to hit shots and set up teammates kept the Miami defense honest, especially on that Towns 3-pointer in overtime. When Teague struggled at the start of the season, he was being too passive. He was almost too aggressive at times on Monday night forcing shots and overdribbling but back-to-back offensive plays by him in overtime gave the Wolves the lead for good. It seems that he is finally adjusting and his play is improving as a result.
While being 4-0 in close games is encouraging, it’s unsustainable. No team can rely on heart racing finishes night in and night out. At some point, this team has to begin to put teams away earlier. The defense and offensive decision making will need to improve for that to happen. Just because they’ve won four games decided by three points or fewer doesn’t necessarily make them good in close games, either. Whittling away late leads has been a common theme in all of their wins. Knowing how to play with a lead and get your starters some extra rest is something the best teams do.
The Timberwolves appear to be trending in that direction but aren’t there yet.