So Close Yet So Far: 8 Thoughts on the Wolves Loss to the Nuggets

This game was certainly different than the last three blowout losses. The Wolves actually took a lead into the 4th quarter before getting stonewalled during a massive Denver run to put the game away. Technically the Wolves are getting better, as they have lasted progressively longer in each of these past 4 losses before getting blown out in the end. Because this was a normal competitive basketball contest, we have real observations and takeaways from the vast majority of the game! Here are 10 thoughts on the 124–109 Wolves loss to the Nuggets:

 

  1. Competing without KAT is going to take creative problem solving from the coaching staff. Ryan Saunders and the rest of the Wolves coaches finally realized that the small lineup of Rubio, Russell, Beasley, Culver, and Reid was not going to be an optimal way to begin a game. They swapped Ed Davis for Naz Reid, and Juancho Hernangomez for Ricky Rubio. Against this larger group, the Nuggets were still able to jump out to an early lead, but the logic was solid. Start Davis and let him bang around with Nikola Jokic early and bring Naz Reid off the bench in a super-sub role. As for Juancho, he is not a great defender, he is relatively large and can at least hold up against Paul Millsap and allow Jarrett Culver to slide down the positional spectrum where he is more comfortable. While the specific lineup Saunders played may not be the answer, it is encouraging to see the team try new things while KAT is out instead of trotting out the same doomed small-ball starting lineups.
  2. Naz Reid may actually be… good? Since Naz signed his steal-of-a-contract prior to last season, Wolves fans have seen the young center as an asset for the future who can eventually develop into a valuable player. We may need to change our thinking on him. Forget his contract and the fact that he went undrafted, he may be a steal simply because he is a good player. We have seen his development from an intriguing player with good footwork and shooting range to an NBA center who understands his role and place within the offense and defense. To top it off, he has started treating fans to chase down blocks and smooth dishes in transition. With injuries to Towns over the past calendar year, it is easy to forget that Naz is only 21 years old, yet he did not look out of place against Nikola Jokic and Jamychal Green against the Nuggets. He certainly still has his warts as an undersized center who does not possess outstanding athleticism, but he will likely learn some tricks to overcome those limitations. Watching him and Towns play the center position for 48 minutes per night should give Wolves fans a lot of hope for the future!
  3. Despite personnel issues at power forward, the Wolves need to continue playing Jarrett Culver on the wing. Culver has struggled offensively functioning as the power forward over the past couple of games. He does not seem comfortable playing in this position next to so many other guards and wings, and that severely limits his offensive effectiveness. He was back to a wing position against Denver, and looked significantly more confident in his abilities and understanding of the offense. He was free to fly in for offensive rebounds (4 of them!) and cut to the basket for easy lay-ins. He even had a powerful putback dunk. A confident Jarrett Culver is a good player, so they will need to continue to play him on the wing, and live with Hernangomez and Layman at the power forward.
  4. We caught a glimpse of how the Wolves need to use D’Angelo Russell for him to be effective on a KAT-less team. Despite what many Wolves fans think of DLo, they will need to feature him heavily on offense to compete without KAT. We finally saw that last night. D’Angelo is best when he is receiving a high ball screen and can slither into the lane for a shot or to dump the ball off to a shooter or the rolling big man. Wanting to play this style was likely the rationale for starting Ed Davis, as he is best as a pick and roll center. DLo’s stat line for the night was pretty solid with 18 pts, 4 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, and 4–7 shooting from the three point line, but he still had a fairly volatile game overall. Most of his good play came in the 3rd quarter when the Wolves put the ball in his hands and let him cook. He was scoring and setting his teammates up whenever he wanted, and looked every bit like the max player the Wolves traded for. If he can sustain more of that type of play, Wolves fans can live with some of his tough stretches.
  5. Speaking of Wolves guards, Malik Beasley is absolutely living up to his contract. This guy competes offensively as hard as any player in the league. Malik is becoming the quick-release shooting threat that the Wolves have sorely lacked for many years. He is a guy that defenses have to respect as he flies around the court hunting his shot. He has mixed in a relatively efficient finishing package around the rim as well, and has done a fairly good job of cutting out midrange jump shots. He clearly felt it necessary to make a statement against his old team scoring 25 points, grabbing 7 rebounds, and dishing 5 assists. With poor shooting nights from Gary Harris and Will Barton, he may have had the Nuggets regretting letting him go and devoting their resources elsewhere. Beasley is certainly not a perfect player, but his effort and energy has carried over from last season and bodes very well for his 20–21 performance.
  6. Still no meaningful playing time for Jarred Vanderbilt. The lack of rotation minutes for JV has been a sore subject for many Wolves fans. He could bring size, athleticism, and some real skills to the table for the big man rotation. Against the Nuggets, the lack of time for Vanderbilt was not as glaring as games past because Jake Layman acquitted himself well and Ed Davis was the starting center, but it is still boggling that he cannot be inserted as a change of pace forward or center when either Davis or Hernangomez is bogging the team down. We should trust the coaching staff if Vanderbilt has not shown that he can be trusted defensively, and his shooting struggles are well-known, but it is worth wondering how Hernangomez and Davis continue to get rotation minutes without trying Vanderbilt. Maybe the right matchup will need to come along, and he will get to show whether he belongs.
  7. Ant continues to show very intriguing flashes of his playmaking. Largely thought of as a pure scorer coming out of college, Anthony Edwards has started to show that he can read the floor much better than previously thought. His decision-making can surely improve, as it can with any 19 yr old in their 6th career game, but the high-level reads he has made with the ball in his hands are very encouraging. A stat line of 5 points and 4 assists in 23 minutes is not going to turn many heads, but the way in which he scored those points and got those assists was great to see. Several times he received a high ball screen and got his defender on his back, then waited until just the right time to sling passes to his teammates. A couple examples from the game against the Nuggets can be found on Jake Paynting’s Twitter timeline where he has clipped some impressive passes from Ant. In the long term, Ant’s path to stardom includes him being more than a scorer. Seeing these flashes already with his lack of experience in the NBA shows that he can certainly reach that star potential.
  8. The Wolves finally played a competitive game most of the way through, but another loss leads to a 4 game losing streak. Last season the Timberwolves endured multiple double digit game losing streaks. They ended up with one of the worst records in the league, even after starting 10–8. Wolves fans are already having visions of another one of those losing streaks that could tank the season quickly. Their star player may still be out for another couple of weeks, so they will need to figure out a way to steal wins without him. The Wolves established an identity on offense and competed on defense against the Nuggets and keeping it up over the next few weeks will be incredibly important.
 

-Jerry W.