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Improved bench play and shooting making a difference for the Timberwolves

Don’t look now but your Minnesota Timberwolves are in a four-way tie for third place in the Western Conference following a 104-98 victory in New Orleans on Wednesday. The Wolves are now 5-1 this season in games decided by six or fewer points.

Improvement is starting to show for this team. Earlier this season, they shook the Oklahoma City Thunder monkey off of their back. And on Wednesday they beat the Pelicans for just the third time in 13 tries. More importantly, the Wolves played well with a lead. When the opponent made a run, Taj Gibson or Andrew Wiggins answered. Doing so on a night when Karl-Anthony Towns struggled with foul trouble and finished with two points and five rebounds gives this win more credibility.

It seems that the Timberwolves are starting to round into the team that we thought they would be. They’re not yet a finished product but we’re starting to see this come together. Had it not been for the stinkers they played against Indiana and Detroit, we’d feel more confident about them. Jimmy Butler not playing, which he didn’t in those two games, seems to have been a factor. They have now won five straight games in which Butler plays.

There are two hidden factors in the Timberwolves’ strong start to the season.

Making 3’s as they please

You have to go back seven years to find the last time a Timberwolves team was top-10 in 3-point shooting. That’s a long time. The 2011 Timberwolves were fifth in 3-point percentage at 37.6 percent. To show how much has changed since the last lockout in the NBA, this year’s incarnation is shooting 37.4 percent from deep but in tenth place.

This is surprising given their apparent lack of shooting on the roster. The Wolves are still just 26th in attempts per game and 25th in made 3’s per game. Neither of those placings are very high but the team is at least making the ones that they are taking.

You can look at this one of two ways. It can be unsustainable or the Wolves can still become a better 3-point shooting team as the season goes on.

Nemanja Bjelica is leading the NBA in true shooting percentage thanks to a sizzling 81.6 percentage. A part of that is his 59.1 percent mark from beyond the arc. It wouldn’t be realistic for someone like Steph Curry to sustain that type of shooting. At any rate, shooting that well on just under three attempts per game is a positive.

Otherwise, you could look at it this way. The Timberwolves are shooting this well from deep while Wiggins and Butler are shooting well below their production from a year ago. Even if Bjelica regresses, Butler likely won’t shoot 26 percent and Wiggins can likely hit more than 31 percent.

There is both overperformance and underperformance here. Which one wins out remains to be seen but when you take so few 3’s per game, you hope they continue to make their shots.

Bench Mob 2.0?

The Bench Mob was the nickname for the Tom Thibodeau Bulls a few years ago. Last season, the Timberwolves had the worst performing reserves unit by just about any metric you could find. They couldn’t score, rebound, defend, or move the ball. This led to a heavy minutes load for the starters. Wiggins and Towns were fourth and sixth in minutes per game last season. With a productive bench, Wiggins is now 12th and Towns is 33rd. That’s a big difference that should keep them fresh down the stretch.

This year’s bench is still 20th in scoring but they are the best 3-point shooting unit in the league. Furthermore, they are 21st in assists per game and 20th in plus/minus. Aside from the shooting, none of these numbers are great. What matters, though, is that they have improved over last season. The Wolves backups currently play the second-fewest minutes per game of any team but that could also change.

Gorgui Dieng had a moribund start to the season. Whether it was being separated from Towns or uncomfortable in his new role, he wasn’t very ineffective. When Towns got into foul trouble on Wednesday night, the team needed Dieng to step up. Dieng responded with his best game of the season with a 12-point, eight-rebound performance. This is the player that Dieng has been his entire career and if he’s finally acclimating to his new role, the team will be better for it.

Shabazz Muhammad is another player who had a positive game. It wasn’t much — six points on 3-for-4 shooting — but the Wolves only won by six. Muhammad doesn’t have to be Sixth Man of the Year for him to make a difference; he just has to make better decisions on the court.

Much of the bench still depends on Jamal Crawford. He’s shooting just 39.7 from the field but 46.7 from deep. Crawford’s play has been mostly what you’d expect: launching treys and dishing out a few assists. Judging from the Timberwolves’ record, this is fine. They haven’t needed much more than that from him and he’s been one of the Wolves’ most consistent players. But the continued growth still depends on Crawford’s continued production.

Ranking former Kentucky Wildcats in Wednesday’s game

  1. DeMarcus Cousins: 35 points, nine rebounds, six assists, and six steals.
  2. Anthony Davis: 24 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, and three steals.
  3. Karl-Anthony Towns: Two points and five rebounds on 1-for-7 shooting to go with five fouls.
  4. Darius Miller: 0-for-1 shooting and a -7 plus/minus in just three minutes of action.
  5. Rajon Rondo: DNP-Injured


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