The Timberwolves willed their way to another victory Wednesday in a game that had sneaky importance. In holding off the depleted Clippers 113-107, Minnesota was able to secure a win over a team it should beat (something that didn’t happen a couple nights earlier in Memphis and on other occasions this year) while managing to get through a pretty grueling stretch of six games in nine days — including two sets of back-to-backs — with a 3-3 record.
They did it while once again playing just eight players, a tight rotation that is the product of an injury (Nemanja Bjelica), ineffectiveness (Shabazz Muhammad) and the style/trust preferences of head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Every starter played at least 36 minutes — keeping all five in the top 40 in the NBA in average minutes played per game — including Jimmy Butler at a game-high 43. That’s the fourth straight game Butler has played at least 40 minutes.
That kind of playing pace might be sustainable in a seven-game NBA Finals series. It is far less likely to be sustainable over an 82-game regular season of which there are still 56 games remaining.
That said, Wednesday’s game seemed to represent a finish line of sorts. Minnesota’s first 26 games this season were played at a pretty tough pace. There was only one extended home stand (four games at the end of November) and have been on airplanes an awful lot. They’ve barely had time to catch their breath, let alone practice.
Now, though, they have three days without a game before starting a stretch of five consecutive home games Sunday. They’re scheduled to be off today before having actual home practices Friday and Saturday. They need to use this chance to regroup and maybe find new paths to victories.
Because on the one hand, they’re 15-11 and in first place in the Northwest Division (No. 4 in the Western Conference). They’ve made it this far with a tough early slate and come out of things pretty well results-wise.
On the other hand, they look slow and tired. A team that wanted to run and push the pace this season is just 22nd in the NBA in pace (after being 23rd last year) and ranks 29th in that category (per NBA.com) over the last six games as players have logged more minutes within a compressed schedule. This is a team that needs rest and perhaps some reinforcements. The former should take care of itself over the next few days. As for the latter, let’s take a look at the situation:
*On the current roster: Getting Bjelica back would certainly help. He’s missed eight games with a lingering foot injury. Bjelica has been an absurdly efficient bench scorer this season playing mostly at power forward.
That said, unless he or Taj Gibson started playing some small forward minutes, even getting Bjelica back wouldn’t solve the biggest problem of wing depth. Shabazz Muhammad has been so shockingly bad this season that Thibodeau won’t even put him into games at all lately. Bazz has a DNP in four of his last five, including each of the last three games. The only other available bench wing (who also hasn’t been playing) is Marcus Georges-Hunt.
That has left three guys — Andrew Wiggins, Butler and Jamal Crawford — to split 96 minutes. Getting Muhammad out of his funk and back to even playing 10 good minutes a game would be a tremendous help. Short of that, maybe seeing what Georges-Hunt could do is a reasonable option. He’s on an NBA roster, after all.
It’s still rather stunning, too, that there isn’t any role on this team for Cole Aldrich. He’s a 6-11 big man making $7 million. He was effective in a limited role before signing here last season. In the right matchups, he would give the Wolves something they lack — size and toughness. For whatever reason, Thibodeau won’t use him. He’s played 10 minutes all season.
*Down in Iowa: If Aldrich, Muhammad and Georges-Hunt can’t get any run, it’s hard to imagine anyone on the G-League’s Iowa Wolves getting a promotion. Georges-Hunt played one game down there and scored 34 points. He seems like the best bet among wings. Wing Anthony Brown is averaging 21.1 points and playing 41 minutes a game (shooting 37.9 percent from three-point range), so maybe he would be worth a look as well.
With the Wolves home for a long stretch and in need of bodies, this might at least be a time that made sense for taking a look at Brown, who was signed to a two-way contract with the Wolves and can spend up to 45 days with the big club.
*Trade: With the NBA regular season about one-third gone, teams are starting to figure out what they are. Some who thought they were contenders are not — and they might soon be looking to trade established players for salary relief, prospects or both.
The Clippers, defeated twice in the last week by the Wolves including Wednesday, appear to be one of those teams. DeAndre Jordan would be awesome on the Wolves and is friends with Jimmy Butler, but teams like Cleveland would seem to have more firepower to get him and a better spot in the lineup to play him. But a guy like Lou Williams (who scored 23 off the bench last night) could be a fit.
Maybe a trade at this point would be premature, but there is already chatter out there. The Wolves could probably add depth without sacrificing depth, there are likely players to be had.