Beating the Birds: 5 Thoughts on a Wolves Win

The Timberwolves had a bounce back win on Saturday night after consecutive deflating losses earlier in the week. They played with a sustained energy and effort level that has not been seen often this season and were able to close out a win. Meanwhile the Pelicans showed that they are no more of a contender in the Western Conference than the Timberwolves at this stage. Here are 5 thoughts on the Wolves win:

 

  1. The rookies contribute to winning! Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels provided a small glimpse of the optimistic potential of the future Wolves. The versatility and athleticism they provide on the court together is a joy to watch, and when they play smart basketball it makes them valuable to winning games. Edwards broke out of his mini slump scoring the basketball with 18 points in 20 minutes, and was able to get to the free throw line 6 times. While he still was not very accurate with his shot (shooting 2/7 from 3, 5/14 overall), this was the type of performance fans would love to see repeated. His “drive and kick” game returned on a couple of occasions as well. While Ant only registered one assist, he had several other ventures into the lane to collapse the defense that led to kick out passes to the perimeter where the ball would swing around and find an open shooter. Those plays do not show on the stat sheet, but they are specifically created by Edwards’ ability to get into the paint. Jaden McDaniels showed once again that he provides value outside of scoring. This was his 2nd straight game where his shot was not falling, but it is very clear to see that his length, lateral agility, and explosiveness help him bother opposing players on defense. He had 2 more blocks tonight against a massive front court, but more importantly he seemed like he was in the right position more often than not. For a player with his physical tools, getting himself in the right position on defense will raise his defensive abilities tremendously.
  2. Outstanding efforts from the Wolves big men. After the Hawks interior offense and defense absolutely hammered the Wolves the night before, fans had nightmares of what Steven Adams and Zion Williamson could potentially do to them. Thanks to Naz Reid, Jarred Vanderbilt, Ed Davis, and Jaden McDaniels we were spared the terror and the Wolves actually outscored the Pelicans in the paint. Adams and Williamson were largely held in check, with Adams only contributing 5 points and 3 rebounds and Zion finishing with 19 points and 11 rebounds. Zion is one of the most efficient finishers in the NBA, and he was only able to shoot 6/16 from the floor. Vanderbilt and Naz played tough, solid, physical defense and made Adams and Zion work for everything they got in the paint. On offense Naz and Vanderbilt finished with 20 and 16 points respectively. The Pelicans’ big men were not interested in chasing those two around, and because of their activity and energy they were able to get to the rim for easy baskets. One of the most encouraging aspects of the game for Vanderbilt is that he was not obviously physically overmatched against Zion Williamson, one of the most physically imposing forwards in the league. That bodes well for his future capabilities in the starting lineup next to Karl-Anthony Towns. Overall the Wolves front court may not have had more talent than New Orleans, but they were able to control the paint with physicality and fundamentals.
  3. A confident Jarrett Culver can swing the Wolves fortunes entirely. It has been well-documented that Culver’s confidence or lack-there-of completely dominates his game. When he is “on” he is a two-way wing that ties the whole team together on offense and shuts down the opposition on defense. Lately he has been more “off” where he is reluctant to drive or shoot and commits bad fouls on defense. These bad games absolutely kill the Wolves wing depth. When he has good (confident) games, the Wolves’ wing rotation is suddenly formidable. Culver had a good game against the Pelicans as he scored 16 points and was 2/4 from the 3pt. line. He also matched up against Brandon Ingram on defense and made Ingram work for his buckets. More encouraging than Culver’s box score was watching the way in which he scored his points. They mainly came within the flow of the offense as he would find himself open after several passes around the perimeter. When Culver’s teammates can count on him to make open shots, the offense opens up entirely. JC will typically be guarded by the opposing team’s worst defender as well. In this case he found himself guarded by JJ Redick and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. A confident Jarrett Culver saw that as a mismatch and overpowered them on drives to the rim. That is incredibly valuable. When Culver is on the floor he is usually one of the lesser offensive threats, so he needs to take advantage of weaker/smaller defenders. He did that against New Orleans, and the Wolves were much better for it during his minutes.
  4. The Pelicans looks like a team that does not fit together. They are a bit perplexing. On paper they have a talented roster with budding stars in Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. They have capable role players like Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams, and Lonzo Ball, but it just does not fit right on the court. They clearly need more 3pt. shooting around Zion, but that is not their biggest problem. They are a big team that does not protect the paint, they have a few good perimeter defenders, but they do not stop dribble penetration very well, and offensively they end up using isolation to score too often. I do not watch New Orleans enough to know the deeper issues there, but it has to be deflating for a team with such high hopes coming into the season that they are likely going to end closer to the bottom of the standings than the top. After trading Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday in the past two offseasons, they are setup very well for the future to reshape their team around Ingram and Zion, so we should certainly not write their death certificate after one loss to the Wolves. But it showed how much further the Pelicans have to go before they can really contend in the West.
  5. A single win for the Wolves does not mean much in the grand scheme, but positive signs were needed after a spiral of recent negativity. Even for a team at the bottom of the standings, winning is just more fun. Instead of taking moral victories out of this game, we are actually able to point to specific players that contributed to winning. The team as a whole showed many positive signs. Defensively they were able to hold New Orleans to only 14 points in the 3rd quarter and 46 total in the 2nd half. Ricky Rubio snapped out of a season-long funk to lead the team in classic Rubio fashion registering 9 points 7 rebounds and 7 assists in 28 minutes. Jordan “JMac” McLaughlin came in off the bench to provide similar offensive leadership to Rubio. The young wings added scoring and defense, the big men rebounded and controlled the paint, and maybe most importantly the coaching staff made sound adjustments and called the right plays. These are not incredible feats for professional NBA players and coaches, but for a team that is losing its grip on the 20–21 season, positive developments occurring in wins are very important.
 

-Jerry W.