It was a joy to finally see my beloved Minnesota Timberwolves live in person at the United Center against the Chicago Bulls, listening to the person seated next to me cuss out Rudy Gobert, calling him Australian? But Minnesota’s fourth-quarter offensive downfall gives the team and fans a lot to think about as the trade deadline inches closer. The playoffs hover over the horizon. How can the Wolves better their late-game offense and stop blowing these leads?
The dumbfounding Charlotte Hornets game, where the Wolves gave Karl-Anthony Towns a deserving long leash to hunt a career-high in points, is sprinkled into that ten-game sample size. But much of that late-game offense was similar to other losses. When the Hornets made tough shots and built momentum, the Wolves could not find ways to fight back because their offense stalled out. The Wolves found ways to stick to what they know best, playing some great defense throughout the final quarter. But they need to do more than contest shots effectively. Shots can still fall.
An overall lack of balance can create a dilemma for the Wolves, who are heavily dependent on their defense to carry the load. They’ve baked that identity into all levels of their play, and the team has collectively bought into it. But things begin to fall apart when they cannot have the defense back up their offense.
It starts at the top offensively for the Wolves with their preferred closing group: Mike Conley, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Towns, and Gobert. They have the talent to execute down the stretch. Conley is the table-setter who can also serve as a spot-up shooter, similar to McDaniels. Conley and McDaniels are shooting a combined 100 for 240 (41.7%) on catch-and-shoot threes this season. Offering the spacing needed to give the others the room to operate, but they can also shoot from the perimeter if the defense collapses.
Edwards is a proven star, averaging 26 points per game while scoring from all three levels. Towns gives them an edge with his post-up scoring ability and the rare mix of size and three-point shooting. Lastly, they can use Gobert as a lob threat and a screener to open up anyone on the court.
While this all adds up, it has not come easy for Minnesota. Putting it all together has been the issue.
Late in games, opponents will focus on slowing Edwards. They will force him into lengthy dribbled-out possessions and scheme to make him a jump shooter. Ant is still capable of hitting these shots, but it’s something the defense can live with for the length of the final eight-ish minutes of the game he typically plays within the rotation. Denying him easy buckets has a trickle-down effect on the rest of the team.
If Ant decides to will his way into drives, the defense meets him with the attention of three, sometimes four, players stunting his way or poking at the ball. That’s in addition to the opponent’s best defender immediately plastering himself over Edwards. In Tuesday’s matchup, Alex Caruso made things difficult for Edwards. If Edwards puts up a driving shot, it may not be the most efficient look. And if the shot isn’t there, the defense has transformed Ant into a decision-maker.
Opponents will likely put two on the ball if the Wolves try to bring a help Ant’s way through Gobert, their best screener, to pry the on-ball pest away from him. By doing so, the defense tries to get the ball out of his hands and pressure Ant to make a quick decision. Opponents can choose which route they would like to take depending on their personnel and put it to use against Edwards.
Opponents will also increase coverage on KAT, often doubling his post touches or pressing him tight on the three-point line with a smaller, quicker defender. Overall, that will limit his two best shot opportunities on the court. If he chooses to force offense and go off the dribble to the rim, defenses have enough time to react, turning Towns into a decision-maker. KAT can be an effective driver, but he’s not consistent enough driving to the basket to rely on it to score. Not to mention, he’s one of the most turnover-prone drivers in the league this season. Towns is turning the ball over on 10.5% of his drives on the season, which leads the league for players with 250 drives or more.
The Wolves have created a pattern. Defenses have found a way to make Ant and KAT uncomfortable late in games. They don’t have many options, either. Conley is by far Minnesota’s best decision-maker, capable of calming these chaotic tendencies. But he can’t drive offense on his own due to his lack of isolation scoring at this point of his career. Therefore, KAT and Ant must drive Minnesota’s offense late in games.
In their last ten games, the Wolves faced clutch time seven times. Clutch time is the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime when the score is within five points. They have gone 2-5 in those games with a -32.4 net rating. It’s a small sample size, but that ranks 24th in the league in the last ten games. Minnesota’s lack of success mostly comes down to two key factors: Edwards’ lack of elite decision-making and KAT’s lack of isolation scoring.
Undoubtedly, Edwards drives winning for the Wolves. He has good shot-making statistics in the clutch, shooting 8/18 from the field and 3/7 from three in the last ten games. But his lack of divisiveness recently has cost Minnesota games.
KAT is in his own category. He’s a phenomenal spot-up shooter who opponents must track all over the court. But his lack of true off-the-dribble creation consistency hampers the Wolves in crunch time. He’s much more suited as a play finisher rather than a playmaker.
That creates a dilemma that will continue to affect the Wolves. Their lack of shot creation will leave each game out of their control. It’s a problem that opponents will exploit in the playoffs, which will continue until they make a schematic change.