Advanced statistics say the Timberwolves are a good team. Per basketball-reference.com, their simple rating of 4.58 ranks No. 8 in the NBA, while their offensive rating (fifth) and defensive rating (12th) are also strong. Based on the numbers, their “expected” win-loss record at this point is 21-12.
But instead, they sit at 16-17 after another brutal loss Saturday night. The Russell Westbrook-less Thunder got a monster performance from Kevin Durant, while the Wolves blew a double-digit fourth-quarter lead and lost to Oklahoma City 115-111. The Timberwolves are now a staggering 0-9 in games decided by four points or fewer, accounting for the discrepancy in their expected and actual record — and threatening to derail a season in which they have their most promising roster in a decade.
When a team so consistently fails in close games, there is a tendency to look for reasons. Maybe the Wolves’ offense and defense aren’t geared for late-game situations. Maybe some of it is just bad luck, and things will even out. Maybe they just need one thing to go their way; if Kevin Love had made three free throws with the Wolves down two points late to OKC, we are having a different conversation today.
But after looking at some numbers, we have come to the conclusion that two specific things stand out. One shouldn’t be a surprise. One might be a little stunning. Both need to change if the Wolves are going to flip the narrative.
OK, this one should come as no surprise. The bench has been a sore spot all season for the Wolves. They are getting 23 points per game from their reserves, second lowest in the NBA. Their reserves also are playing the third-fewest minutes.
That means early in the fourth quarter, when reserves are usually giving starters a breather, the Wolves are typically at a disadvantage. It also means their starters can get fatigued. Love said that was a factor Saturday in his free throw misses, after he had played the entire second half.
The return of Chase Budinger and Ronny Turiaf will add depth and — the Wolves hope — more production from the reserves.
RICKY RUBIO’S CLOSE-GAME SWOONS
We can accept, in general terms, the limitations in Ricky Rubio’s game because of all the benefits. He has great court vision, he sets up teammates for all sorts of great scoring chances and is a master at stealing the ball from unsuspecting opponents. He’ll never be a great shooter, and maybe that’s OK.
What isn’t OK is his scoring production in those nine close losses. In those games, Rubio is a combined 14-for-62 from the field (22.6 percent) and is averaging just 5.2 points. It is even worse late in those nine games, in which Rubio has just three points COMBINED in the fourth quarter and overtime. Sometimes he sat on the bench for extended stretches, perhaps a testament to his struggles.
Three of those narrow losses came to the Clippers. In those games, Chris Paul scored a whopping 35 combined points in the fourth quarter and one overtime session. Rubio shouldn’t be expected to approach that level, but he clearly needs to produce more in tight games.