The Timberwolves’ recent four-game winning streak was largely powered by an unsuspected unit: the bench. Just not necessarily the bench that comes immediately to mind. Yes, Jordan McLaughlin, Juancho Hernangomez, Jarred Vanderbilt and Naz Reid, but also D’Angelo Russell.
After returning from knee surgery, Minnesota’s star guard came off the bench for an entire month and found synergy with the Timberwolves’ reserves.
Hernangomez and Reid provide shooting, McLaughlin can break down a defense off the bounce and Vanderbilt is a defensive and rebounding maniac. Russell was the conductor, who both set guys up and, when needed, provided the bulk of the scoring.
Minnesota won its bench minutes comfortably. That can go a long way toward winning games.
But then Timberwolves coach Chris Finch finally pulled the trigger and re-inserted Russell into the starting lineup. It had to be done. Minnesota needs to see how Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Russell — the three pillars of its building process — mesh on the floor.
The answer thus far is well.
The starting lineup of Russell, Towns, Edwards, Josh Okogie and Jaden McDaniels outscored Memphis by three points in 13 minutes Wednesday. On Friday, the starting lineup changed because McDaniels missed the game to attend a funeral, but the results stayed the same. Russell, Towns, Edwards, Ricky Rubio and Jarred Vanderbilt outscored Miami by five points in 18 minutes.
“The starting unit was cooking. They had 32 at the end of the quarter, and they should’ve had 38, 40,” Finch said. “In particular, I thought in the first quarter we were real strong and we moved the ball really well.”
Yet Minnesota has lost both games — because its bench has been awful. Perhaps the Timberwolves’ reserves have missed Russell as the anchor of the unit, but they’ve been easily outscored in consecutive games.
“There’s got to be some correlation, but I don’t think it’s totally reliant on D-Lo. We can still get to those lineups. I have to do a better job of getting us there,” Finch said. “I think those bench guys will be fine. Coming down the stretch here with these (five) games, we don’t want to be too disruptive, and we also need to build that chemistry between those three guys.”
Finch said there is “a lot” that goes into lineup management.
“Some of it’s game flow, some of it is how long can a guy play before he starts to fatigue to the point where he makes mistakes. Some of it is matchup-driven on the floor,” Finch said. “We’re not necessarily a team that has a real strict script. Some teams will script it out. We have benchmarks we like to try to stick to. One of the mistakes I made earlier in the season, I didn’t get D-Lo back into the game soon enough because I was trying to stick to a script a little bit more.”
Finch said he’s aware of those benchmarks but he always asks his assistants to think ahead in terms of rotations.
“What’s going to happen in the game? Can we be proactive? Do we have to be reactive?” Finch asked. “What’s our next lineup gonna look like? How do we get there? What’s our closing lineup gonna look like, and how do we get there?”
It will be one of the more important facets of Minnesota’s stretch run. Rubio said the end of this season isn’t so much about wins and losses but “trying to find the right pieces to fit together, so we can build something for next year.”
“Not always the best players play the best game together; you have to find the right pieces of the puzzle. It’s just like a puzzle, so beautiful, that not the best pieces go together,” Rubio said. “You’ve got to find the right balance out there, and I think it’s what we’re trying to find here these last five to 10 games.”