Timberwolves struggling to maintain offensive rhythm with star players
The team’s offensive rating when Edwards and Towns have shared the floor since their returns to action is a paltry 98.1 points per 100 possessions
The Minnesota Timberwolves’ offense picked an awful time to stall out Friday. In the second half of a game that could be a major determinant for Minnesota’s playoff positioning when the regular season wraps up a week from Sunday, the team’s rhythm and movement came to a screeching halt and the production followed.
Things went off the rails in the middle of the third frame, and the course was never corrected. When things got bad, the decision-making got worse. The offense, which has evolved in recent weeks and shown flashes of brilliance thanks to increased ball and player movement, stagnated and Minnesota returned to the isolation basketball and quick-shot chucking that has plagued this team in the past.
“I think guys trying to fix it themselves. Trying to step up and take on the whole defense,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “They sell out in the gaps, sell out at the rim. Thought maybe the kick-outs, they weren’t going in so guys were trying to force their way through traffic. You got to keep making the right play.”
Making the right play was a hallmark of Minnesota’s 140-point explosion in a road win over the Knicks. The offense was equally good in the Timberwolves’ road win in Sacramento this week, when Minnesota recorded 33 assists to just six turnovers.
But there have been some stall-outs, even in victory, against the likes of Golden State, Phoenix and the Lakers. One common denominator in all three of those games is that Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards were in action. Towns didn’t play against Sacramento nor New York, and Edwards was absent for the Knicks game.
It’s largely been Minnesota’s star-less lineups, which feature no pecking order, that have provided the best ball movement and flow. There has been an adjustment period playing out while the Wolves try to work ball-dominant players back into the fold.
The team’s offensive rating when Edwards and Towns have shared the floor since their returns to action is a paltry 98.1 points per 100 possessions. The team’s defense has been quite good in Towns’ minutes since his return from injury. The offense has not.
“I wouldn’t say (we have to establish a rhythm) all over again. I would say that we gotta be aware of each other and we gotta be willing to do the things for each other without the ball, whether it’s spacing, whether it’s screening, running the floor,” Wolves center Rudy Gobert said. “We’ve done it at times. We’ve just gotta keep getting better at doing it. That’s why I think the film is so important for us right now.”
Star players generally aren’t accustomed to doing many of those types of things on offense. Usually, everything on that end revolves around them. But Minnesota has shined when the offense centers no one person.
“We got to get back to moving the ball. The ball is just sticky. We’re just not playing out of any concepts or any flow. That’s when we’re best,” Finch said. “Get caught calling too many plays right now, trying to direct the offense this way, that way, get somebody going who hasn’t been going. Sometimes you got to get yourself going. You got to get an offensive rebound, get something in transition. You got to make a cut, get to the free-throw line and play with more force.”
When things get “sticky,” Wolves guard Mike Conley noted there are a few sets the team can run to calm things down and generate movement. But even those aren’t a cure-all.
“Whoever is out there at the time, we just have to get together and say, ‘Hey, here’s what we need to do. Maybe don’t shoot it as soon as you get it. Maybe pass it up,’ ” Conley said. “Like we need to move it side to side, get them moving, crack the paint one time and then get some guys some easier looks. Take the good shot and make a great one. That’s what we’ve got to do. It’s a simple game when you break it down. Games like (the Lakers loss) really highlighted that for us.”
Conley wouldn’t call re-integrating Towns a “challenge,” but he did refer to it as a “hurdle.” Not only is Minnesota trying to work the talented big man into what was previously working offensively, but there are also a number of calls designed to get Towns the ball that weren’t previously a part of the game plan.
Conley added that losing Naz Reid, whose play epitomized what Finch’s offense is supposed to feature, presents another hurdle. But the guard said Minnesota is working overtime to iron out the wrinkles. Conley said he’s starting to figure out where and when Towns needs and wants the ball, and he’s learning what he needs to do to help the big.
“We talked a little bit after the game about me and him being in more actions together and trying to utilize that in pick and roll and how I can make the game easier for him,” Conley said. “Not having him in isolation at 30 feet where it becomes a little stagnant. Just trying to help him as much as I can.”
Finch noted Minnesota needs to move the ball early in possessions simply for the sake of moving it. The Wolves, he added, need more cutting to create space for one another.
“Some of it is just natural with having KAT back and everybody adjusting to that,” Finch said. “I think his numbers both in the Phoenix game and (Friday), when you look at it, most of the stuff he has, has come in the flow of the game. We’ve been trying to force it to him, that’s been less successful, and it’s had a little bit of a ripple effect across the scoring or the flow of the offense.”
It’s unclear if Towns agrees with the assessments of his teammates and coach.
Towns noted the team had “a lot to talk about” after the Lakers loss. He said he was watching film to confirm if his in-game observations were correct — though he didn’t divulge what those were. He did note the Wolves needed to “do better utilizing ourselves better.”
“I got a lot of things to say (Saturday) at practice. I’m gonna go in there and do what I gotta do, speak up for our team. I know the words I say will help us win games,” Towns said. “So I’m just trying to do that. That’s all I’m gonna say. Keep it in the locker room.”
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