Down Goes Thibs: Thoughts on the Wolves Win

Credit: Stacy Bengs/AP

The Wolves narrowly escaped Target Center with a 102–101 win that will surely have Knicks fans lamenting their team’s performance down the stretch. Finding themselves in another early hole, the Wolves fought back and trailed only by 1 at halftime. Then they found themselves with a double digit deficit again early in the 4th quarter before entrusting Anthony Edwards to lead the comeback. Here are 5 thoughts on a rousing win for the Wolves and a spoiled Target Center return for Tom Thibodeau.

 

Thibs is a very good basketball coach. If you give him a 16-win roster, he’ll get you 17 wins. If you hand him a 50-win roster, he’ll get you 51 wins. He maximizes the team that he is coaching, and he is the guy who coached the Timberwolves to the playoffs after a decade and a half of futility. He deserves kudos for that! The issue is when he is handed a young up and coming roster like the Knicks, and he does what he always does. He tries to squeeze every last win out of them. The Knicks are too good to tank, but if I were a fan of that team I would certainly be frustrated at the lack of playing time for young guys like Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin, and Frank Ntilikina. Quickley has been legitimately good this year, so why not let him play through a few rookie mistakes and limit Elfrid Payton’s minutes. Obi Toppin was the 8th pick in the draft just a few months ago. Surely the Knicks need to find out what type of value he can provide, as he is already 23 years old. Instead, Taj Gibson played 24 minutes to Toppin’s 9. They may very well make the playoffs this year, and that will be great for them, but Thibs’ hard stubbornness to play veterans and “his guys” over younger and higher upside players may hamstring their ability to build around Julius Randle and RJ Barrett in the long term.

 

A 19 & 20 year old are leading the way for the Wolves. As the starting lineups flashed across the screen prior to the Wolves vs. Knicks, it dawned on me that we are likely to see Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels in the starting lineup for the remainder of this season’s games (and hopefully for a looooong time after this season). What is even more surprising is that those two kids ended up being the catalysts for a Wolves win against a veteran Knicks team, and overall when the Wolves win both of those players have usually been big reasons why. That is just not common for young players in the NBA. Both players have certainly had their ups and downs this season. Anthony Edwards, a 19 year old, has been a rollercoaster ride on offense and mostly lost on defense. Jaden McDaniels has had his playing time fluctuate and his jump shot disappear for games at a time. That is to be expected for rookies so early in their developmental cycle. The encouraging sign is that those tough stretches are happening less and less. They are showing signs of incrementally building consistency, game after game. Their performance will slump again before this season is over, maybe even several more times. Don’t panic. These two players have some incredible confidence in their abilities, and they will bounce back. That alone is cause for Wolves fans to sit back and enjoy watching Ant and Jaden blossom into one of the most fun duos this Wolves franchise has seen.

 

 

This was an important win. It was just as important as the Phoenix win and the Portland win. No it is not significant in terms of the standings, as the playoffs are out of the question, and yes it technically hurt the draft lottery odds (don’t worry, we’ll still end the season with a decent shot at keeping the draft pick). But wins like this against supposed playoff teams when your rookies play well and are the key reasons for the win, are incredibly valuable. The game against the Knicks was a slog. It was almost never pretty, but coming out victorious in a game like that should reinforce to this team’s young players that winning plays are often not pretty. The little things like boxing out, making free throws, and taking care of the ball matter, and they will not end up on any highlight reel. Ant and Jaden WILL make plenty of plays that end up on highlight reels in their career, but those plays are not the reason this game was won, and they likely know that. This is how winning habits are developed. Only the most special players in the league just have those winning instincts. All other players have to develop them, slowly, with the right coaching and attitude. We may be starting to see that recipe develop for Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels.

 

 

The Wolves bench is becoming a major issue. We’re not handing out roses to everyone in this game. Head Coach Chris Finch rode the starters hard to close out this game because he was not getting much from his bench players. Jaylen Nowell was the only player off the bench with a positive +/- and that is because he played a couple of stretches with the starters. Out of the 6 bench players who saw minutes, Minnesota got a combined 13 points on 5/22(!) shooting from the field. That’s quite bad! Jordan McLaughlin just has not been the same offensive catalyst the Wolves saw earlier in the year, and when Jaylen Nowell is not shooting well there is almost no chance for perimeter creation. That is severely impacting Naz Reid’s ability to score in the paint and get open 3’s, as he is having to fight through heavy traffic without a perimeter threat to ease the load for him. The Culver/Layman/Hernangomez triumvirate provided next to nothing at the forward positions, so that led to the Knicks building their leads against the Wolves bench units. With the impending return of D’Angelo Russell, things may run a little more smoothly for the 2nd unit. While I do not believe shifting Ricky Rubio to run the bench unit helps them all that much, it will provide the Wolves with another scorer that can be staggered with their current starters. DLo or Ant (or both)could be subbed out early in the 1st quarter to return and play essentially the entire time the 2nd unit is on the court to add a little firepower. I am sure the coaches will figure out a rotation that works, because the current bench unit needs help.

 

Chris Finch is going to be the head coach here for a long time. He seems to have the goods. I do not pretend to know all of the finer details that make a great head coach, but I feel confident in saying that Finch is the right guy to coach this team. Many fans have noticed the the offense and defense overall seem to have more structure. That is great, but to me Finch has set himself apart because of how he responds to situations in games and how the players respond to him. In the win against the Knicks, Finch pulled all the right levers to jumpstart the team when they were down. He is willing to play a guy who is hot, and not afraid to cut someone from the rotation when they just do not have it that night. When coaches do this, it can be an issue for players because they no longer know what to expect in their role from game to game. But Finch is grabbing the respect of the locker room by holding everyone accountable, including the team’s best players. In several games, Anthony Edwards has been pulled after inexcusable defensive mistakes and he has not closed games. Against the Knicks Malik Beasley had a brief stint on the bench late in the game after consecutive poor defensive possessions. Chris Finch’s opinion carries weight in this locker room. Combine that with his experience around the world as a coach and leader, and the Wolves should have a keeper in the head coach seat for a long time.

 

-Jerry W.

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