Minnesota Timberwolves Finally Figure Out How to Win in Crunch Time

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Minnesota Timberwolves Finally Figure Out How to Win in Crunch Time
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Eighty-six days.

That's how long it took the Minnesota Timberwolves to pull out a close game. A 121-120 win over the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena marked Minny's first of the 2013-14 NBA season in situations decided by four points or fewer.

And, really, it couldn't have been much closer throughout. The contest featured 16 ties and 14 lead changes, including four ties and five lead changes in the fourth quarter alone.

The last of which came on a Kevin-to-Kevin connection, with Kevin Love hitting Kevin Martin for a 20-foot jumper with 8.4 seconds to play.

"It feels good. Eventually we've got to win games like that," said Love, the team's first All-Star starter since Kevin Garnett in 2007, after the game, via the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com). "We just need to grow up in situations like that and get a little bit of luck on our side."

Luck was, indeed, on Minny's side in the end. The T-Wolves dodged a bullet when a slumping Harrison Barnes clanked a 22-footer off the iron that would've given Golden State the edge at home.

There's no doubting just how impressive this W was for the T-Wolves, given the circumstances. They'd won just eight of their first 21 road games and hadn't come out on top in Oakland in nearly two years. The Dubs haven't exactly overwhelmed the opposition on their home court—this was their seventh loss at the "Roar-acle" this season—though success in the East Bay, in front of Golden State's raucous crowd, remains a fleeting thought for most visitors.

Especially ones who struggle as mightily in fourth quarters as have the T-Wolves all year. According to NBA.com, Minny has been outscored by 9.8 points per 100 fourth-quarter possessions (third-worst) with an effective field-goal percentage of .446 (fourth-worst) in 2013-14.

The culprits for the T-Wolves' late-game putridity are many, though none has loomed larger than Ricky Rubio, according to ESPN's Kevin Pelton:

The slippery Spaniard ended that dubious streak with a six-footer at the 1:54 mark. That shot would stand as Rubio's lone field-goal attempt of the quarter, though he did hit one of his two free throws to conclude Minny's subsequent possession.

More troubling than Rubio's fourth-quarter field-goal percentage, now at an abysmal 18.2 percent, is his apparent reluctance to shoot in the key moments of a game. He's now launched just 44 shots in 42 fourth quarters this season—basically, one per final frame.

That's not a good ratio for a player like Rubio (to say the least), who has the ball in his hands as often as he does. According to the league's SportVU stats, Rubio ranks 15th in time of possession per game (6.3 minutes) and 12th in touches per game (84.4).

Rubio's reluctance, though, doesn't come without cause. He came into Friday as the NBA's worst-shooting regular at 35.4 percent. He's actually shot a respectable 36.6 percent from three-point range, though his mark from inside the arc (34.4 percent) does plenty to mitigate his overall effectiveness.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The point is, the T-Wolves need Rubio to be a credible threat to score if they're going to take the next step into the playoffs come spring. As great a passer as Ricky and as effective as the Kevins have been in spacing the floor with their perimeter shooting, the floor cramps up far too often for Minny, due in large part to Rubio's cold shooting.

Luckily for the T-Wolves, they didn't need much from Rubio beyond his passing to pull out a victory. They shared the wealth, with eight different Minny players scoring in the fourth quarter.

More importantly, the T-Wolves clamped down on defense when they most needed to do so. They held the Dubs to 7-of-19 (36.8 percent) shooting and forced five Golden State turnovers—off of which Minnesota scored seven precious points—over the last 12 minutes of the game.

Which is doubly impressive when you consider that Golden State had torched its visitors for 60 percent shooting through the first three periods.

By some measures, such strong defensive play is not, in fact, foreign to these T-Wolves. They rank 11th in points allowed per 100 possessions, opposite an offense that checks in ninth in efficiency. They're one of the top rebounding teams in the league, which is to be expected when you employ Love (who went for 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists) and Nikola Pekovic (who contributed 22 points and 14 boards of his own) on your front line.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

But in the case of the Timberwolves, the new-fangled stats tell a story that's all but divorced from reality. Their defense, which leads the NBA in opponent free-throw rate and ranks third in opponent turnover ratio, doesn't sparkle quite as much when taking into account that no team has let its opponents rack up a higher field-goal percentage than they have. Their offense may be a top-10 unit on the whole, thanks largely to Love, but collapses into the bottom 10 in both field-goal percentage and three-point percentage.

Not surprisingly, then, Minnesota is exactly break-even in the most important stat of all: wins and losses, with 21 of each through 42 games. That puts the Wolves four games ahead of their 2012-13 pace, but still leaves them in 10th place in the Western Conference, two-and-a-half games back of the eighth-place Dallas Mavericks.

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Gaining ground could be a tall order for this T-Wolves team in the coming weeks. They'll play five of their next eight games away from the Target Center, with trips to Portland and Oklahoma City mixed in.

Not that this team isn't capable of making moves in the standings. As dispiriting as those first 11 losses in four-point games were, they also point to a team that's good enough and competitive enough to be within striking distance of victory more often than not.

Like any squad in the midst of its own bildungsroman, the T-Wolves had to learn how to win and, as the current campaign has proved, are still in the process of figuring that out. But a prime-time win in the East Bay, against another up-and-comer out West, makes for a nice start.

Even if it took the T-Wolves nearly three months to scratch. 

 

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