Jimmy Butler’s 37-point performance Monday in a game in which he was questionable to play because of back issues was an old-school demonstration of determination and grit. When the story of the Wolves season is ultimately told, I have a feeling we will remember how Butler and Jamal Crawford absolutely willed the Wolves to a one-point win over Portland — keeping Minnesota in the No. 4 spot in the West, pushing its record to 18-13 and changing the tenor of a home stand that would have been 2-3 and disappointing with a loss to 3-2 and upbeat with a win.
Butler’s final offensive play, though, when he drove baseline, got fouled near the rim and made two free throws for the winning margin, was a nice mix of old-school and new-school. Conventional basketball wisdom says a drive to the basket in an end-of-game situation is better than a jump shot because more good things can happen. As advanced stats have become more prevalent in the NBA, too, we’ve learned that the most efficient shots in the league, by far, are either three-pointers or shots at the rim. The least efficient shots, by contrast, are long 2-pointers.
The Timberwolves’ offense this season has been somewhat of a paradox. They rank fifth in offensive rating per Basketball Reference (an estimate of points scored per 100 possessions) at 111.6, and they’re ninth in true shooting percentage, a weighted measure that factors two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws.
But they also take — some would say settle for — a lot of inefficient 2-point shots. Of the Wolves’ attempted field goals this season, 73.2 percent have been from 2-point range, the third-highest percentage in the league. A full 28 percent of those have been from been from between 10 feet and the three point line, and another 19 percent have been from between 3 and 10 feet.
That means 53 percent of the Wolves’ shots have been at the rim (between 0-3 feet) or three-point range. That’s among the lowest percentages in the league. The Rockets — an extreme example — have attempted 82.8 percent of their field goals at the rim or from three-point range. They also lead the NBA in offensive rating.
Generally, all those shots — even the 3-10 footers — are much lower percentage shots than shots at the rim or 3-pointers. NBA teams, on average, are shooting 39.4 percent from 3-10 feet, 41 percent from 10-16 feet and 40 percent from 16 feet to the 3-point line.
The Wolves are among the best NBA teams from 3-10 feet (42.1 percent, thanks in large part to Jimmy Butler shooting 50.8 percent from that distance and Karl-Anthony Towns shooting 45.1 percent from that distance). The Wolves are excellent when they get to the rim, shooting 70.2 percent on those shots (third-best in the NBA). But by percentage of overall attempts, Minnesota lags at No. 22 in terms of shots taken at the rim (26.1 percent).
Those numbers suggest the Wolves have a good offense despite their drawbacks. They finish well in close and they get to the free throw line at a high rate. But they could be even better if they didn’t settle for as many mid-range to long 2-pointers.
In this regard, the finger can be pointed at a lot of players. But the biggest culprit might be Butler’s wing mate Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins entered play Monday having attempted just 22.8 percent of his overall field goal tries at the rim. Last year, his rate was 29.1 percent, and it was up over 30 percent each of his first two seasons in the league. Wiggins is attempting far more three-pointers as a percentage of his overall shots this year than last year, which is good in terms of his efficiency. But he’s not making them at a high rate right now, and he’s still often settling for jump shots even in isolation sets. Wiggins is too dangerous attacking the rim to settle for jumpers.
Monday’s game was a good example . Wiggins was 4-for-14 from the field. All three of his makes were at the rim (with one miss), while the other was inside the paint. He was 3-for-4 at the rim, 1-for-3 between 6 and 10 feet, 0-for-4 on mid-range shots (between 13 and 20 feet) and 0-for-3 from 3-point range.
So just 50 percent of his attempts (7 of 14) were at the rim or from three-point range. He was 3 of 7 from that distance. Another 50 percent of his attempts were the less efficient 2-pointers, and he made just 1 of 7 of those.
By contrast, eight of Butler’s 11 field goal makes were from inside the paint, including five layups or dunks. He also took some mid-range shots — sometimes those shots are either open or inevitable and need to be taken based on the game situation — but Butler was far more aggressive attacking the basket.
For the season, Butler has actually been less efficient than Wiggins in terms of shot selection. He entered Monday having attempted just 47.2 of his field goals at the rim or from 3-point range. But Butler, as noted above, is far above NBA league average from 3-10 feet. He banks in a lot of 4-5 footers that are virtually layups but don’t count as true shots at the rim.
Regardless, Butler was rewarded in the closing seconds Monday for his aggressiveness. He didn’t get a basket at the rim, but he got the next best thing with a foul and two free throws.
Butler needs to keep that up, and have Wiggins follow his lead, if the Wolves are going to turn a good offense into a great one.