HOUSTON – If Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau has said it once, he has said it 82 times:
The games reveal all.
He calls each one an examination that tells his team exactly where it is. This season, a team led by a new coach and basketball boss won 31 games and lost 51, including its last six after Wednesday’s 123-118 defeat at Houston.
Those 31 victories are only two more than the Wolves won a year ago in a tumultuous season that began with the death of coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders and ended with interim coach Sam Mitchell’s team winning four of its last five games. They are also 10 fewer than Las Vegas oddsmakers predicted they’d win.
Others expected more, but Thibodeau said he crunched every number, watched every splice of video and came to the job “with eyes wide open” before he accepted it.
Now with it all over, he considers it most important that his team built a “foundation” in which he believes young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins have found something together. They did so during a season in which the Wolves lost a double-digit lead and the game 22 times.
“We had to make sure Andrew and Karl developed a voice,” Thibodeau said.
‘Find your way’
Sunday’s loss to the Lakers in Los Angeles is perhaps the season’s best example of both its success and failure:
Towns and Wiggins became the first teammates in Wolves history and only the 11th pair all-time in the NBA to score at least 40 points each in a regular-season game. They join the likes of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (the most recent, in October 2015), Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Kiki Vandeweghe and Alex English, and Elgin Baylor and Jerry West.
The Wolves also lost, 110-109 on a buzzer-beating three-point shot by a Lakers team that finished with the league’s third-worst record.
Consider it a defeat in which the two players found a little bit more of their voice, if through their actions rather than words.
“It means to find your way, find who you are in this league,” Wiggins said when asked if he knew what finding a “voice” with Towns meant. “I feel like we’ve done that. We have gotten people’s attention. We play hard every game. We play together, and we’re only getting better.”
To clarify, they have done so almost exclusively with their offense, displaying the scoring skills befitting two players selected first overall in consecutive NBA drafts. Defensively, that’s another matter for a team that missed the playoffs for a 13th consecutive year.
“Obviously, they’re good,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said before Wednesday’s game. “They’re good-good. But they’re young still and there’s always a point where it’s not an excuse and you’ve just got to do it. But they have the possibility to be really good. Individually, they already are.”
A third-year pro, Wiggins turned 22 in February. Now in his second NBA season, Towns won’t do so until November.
Thibodeau believes each can be as good as he wants to be.
“I don’t want to put a lid on those guys,” Thibodeau said. “They’re young. They’re driven. I want them to continue to do great things. Not only on the offensive end, I think they can do it on the defensive end. That’s the challenge: to be complete, and I think when we start playing defense consistently, we’ll win consistently.”
Until then, he wants both players to build a collective voice, which Thibodeau means to lead.
“There are different types of leadership,” he said. “The best type of leadership is doing the right things every day. But it’s also to move the group forward. You have to set the tone and you have to speak. But you can’t just say it, you have to do it. You can’t say all the right things and do none of them.”
Never be satisfied
Thibodeau needed only to look across the Toyota Center court Wednesday to see the evolution of a talent from high draft pick to NBA superstar and league MVP candidate. That’s Rockets point guard James Harden, the third player drafted in 2009 who is neck-and-neck with Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook for league MVP.
“You look at James here and you forget what he was like his rookie year,” Thibodeau said. “We all tend to look at him and think the way he’s playing now is the way he has always played. There was a progression to it. James deserves a lot of credit the way he has added to his game every year. He’s getting better and better, and it says a lot about him.
“You can learn from that. Good players do that. There’s a drive. There’s an intelligence. There’s never being satisfied. That’s why you see players get better year after year.”
That’s why Thibodeau relied as much as he did on Towns and Wiggins while the Wolves’ third young star, Zach LaVine, recovers from February surgery to repair a torn knee ligament. Thibodeau did not turn to veterans such as Brandon Rush, Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill to win perhaps a few more games.
“When you’re as young as we are, that was by design,” Thibodeau said. “We wanted it to be that way. The question becomes how do you speed up the process? And that comes from the effort you put forth every day, your concentration, your study and then putting everything you have into each and every day. We have some really good young players who have grown and continue to grow. This is a critical summer for them.”
Towns, Wiggins and their teammates will return to Minneapolis periodically this summer to work with Thibodeau and his coaches. The staff will go to wherever players are as well. And they’ll all probably gather together at a vacation destination or two for work and team-building.
And maybe some voice-building, too.
“I think it takes time, but I think we’re on the right path,” Towns said. “We have a full summer to go before we really will find our way as a team.”