There is an urge to look at the Timberwolves’ overtime loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday through a certain forgiving, optimistic lens.
This is an 82-game season, after all. The Wolves are 16-12. If we keep harping on every little bad or questionable thing, we’re probably missing out on the big picture: Minnesota is playing meaningful basketball, even if it isn’t pretty, and more often than not so far this team is grinding out wins.
The recent winning formula — heavy minutes for the starters, just three bench players used and a hold-on-for-dear-life fourth quarter approach — very well could have worked again Tuesday. The Wolves led by nine points midway through the fourth quarter and by two points in the closing seconds of regulation. Better execution in a handful or even just one critical possession would have yielded a victory.
But I also think Tuesday’s game underscored the potentially real problem lurking within the Wolves’ shrunken 8-man rotation.
Excellent Wolves TV analyst Jim Petersen hit on it the other day during a series of tweets. It’s not so much that the Wolves’ best players are logging heavy minutes. A lot of star players are asked to carry heavy loads. Guys like LeBron James and Allen Iverson routinely averaged more than 40 minutes per game during full seasons.
And yes, Tuesday’s game looked extreme because it ended up going to overtime. Karl-Anthony Towns played 48 minutes. Jimmy Butler played a shade under 46 full minutes. Those totals still would have been high if the Wolves had won (or lost) in regulation, but as Tyus Jones told me recently, when players are in the middle of a game the number of minutes they’re playing is the last thing on their minds.
Was fatigue a factor in overtime? Has it been a factor late in games this season, given that the Wolves are being outscored by an average of 2.9 points in the fourth quarter of games this season after outscoring opponents by an average of 3.5 points over the first three quarters? Maybe. It could also be execution.
The larger point underscored Tuesday and by Petersen on Twitter a few days ago is this: “If your complaint is about having a stronger bench … I’m with you.”
Yes, that is my specific complaint about the first 28 games and particularly about Tuesday — and particularly about depth among wing players.
The 76ers were awful through 3.5 quarters on Tuesday. They looked disinterested and sloppy. They came in with a 13-13 record and had lost four consecutive games. For all the talk about their emergence and the validation of “The Process” — a fancy term given to the concept of trying to be bad in order to be good later, which like the guy who thought he invented making lunch at home is not at all a new idea — they are very much still a work in progress. Joel Embiid is a monster and a joy. Ben Simmons has great vision. If they develop and stay healthy, they have a chance. But right now, they are flawed.
The Wolves can take some of the credit for making Philly look bad for the first 42 minutes. Butler’s defense on Simmons was superb. So again, the grind-it-out method could have led to a win Tuesday.
But there’s also this: The Wolves at one point Tuesday were 1-for-23 from three-point range. At the point they were 1-for-19, they were ahead 86-77 with 6:06 left in regulation.
Andrew Wiggins couldn’t buy a jumper. Jimmy Butler, at that point, hadn’t made a three all night. Jamal Crawford was 0-for-4 from long range. And those are the three wings who currently play.
It was a game in which the Wolves desperately missed injured forward Nemanja Bjelica, who is 21 of 41 from long range this season but has been out for 10 games now. It was a game in which the Wolves desperately missed the version of Shabazz Muhammad who couldn’t miss from three at one point last year.
But guess what? Injuries happen. Funks like the one Muhammad has been in basically all year — leading to his recent benching — happen.
Tuesday’s game was crying out for a different look. Try Muhammad and see if he can get some traction. Put in Marcus Georges-Hunt and see if he can knock down an open three. Maybe even experiment with Tyus Jones and Jeff Teague on the court at the same time (particularly when the 76ers went small with T.J. McConnell) since both of those guys can make threes.
If anyone on the Wolves would have warmed up even just a little from three-point range, Minnesota could have turned Tuesday’s game into a blowout.
Big-picture, you need to find out if you have any depth because 1) Games like this call for it, 2) What happens if Butler, Wiggins or Crawford miss any sort of time with injury, illness or even just foul trouble? and 3) If it turns out you don’t have any depth, maybe you can acquire some.
Is it sustainable for guys like Butler, Wiggins and Towns to play a few more minutes every game than some might prefer? Quite possibly.
But that’s only if nothing goes wrong with any of the eight players in any game — and that’s the part that doesn’t feel sustainable.