At this point, Zach LaVine acknowledged, it has become more than just X’s and O’s. More than assignments on defense and moving the ball on offense. This problem the team is having with the third quarter might be getting inside the players’ heads.
“We gotta fix it before it turns bad,” he said. “Because we’re playing really well, and it just turns and ruins the whole game. It ruins all our spirits. Going into the next game you feel like you’ve got it figured out. We’re up 15, 12 points and we’re going good and it’s just a nosedive.’’
Tuesday against Charlotte the Wolves led by 12 points at halftime but were outscored 36-17 in the third quarter.
This, of course, has become a theme in this young season. Minnesota has built first-half leads of 14 or more points in seven of 10 games. But four of those big leads have slipped away, and the culprit is usually the 12 minutes following halftime.
By the numbers it’s rather stunning. Tuesday the Wolves shot 50 percent, made nine of 17 three-pointers and held the Hornets to 42.9 percent shooting and to 3-for-10 on three-pointers.
But in the third quarter the Wolves stalled out on offense — hitting four of 18 shots — and the Hornets shot nearly 60 percent and made six of nine three-pointers.
LaVine said when adversity strikes in the third, it’s hard not to think that it’s all happening again.
“Yeah, and every time it has,’’ he said. “It’s been a trend. It’s not just a back-to-back thing and we’re tired or something like that. It’s something we’ve got to fix as a unit because it’s happened seven times.’’
On the court the problems are the same. The ball stops moving on offense as players try to get the team back on track individually rather than as a unit. That can lead to poor shots, misses and easy baskets at the other end. On defense, too often the team isn’t following through.
“You have to protect the paint and get out and cover the line,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “And finish with the rebounding. Right now we get the initial part, but not the second and third parts. We’re more than capable of doing it. We just have to get it done.’’
It appears offensive swoons lead to problems on the defensive end. So the key may be to keep the ball moving.
“When the ball moves we get great shots,” Thibodeau said. “When we get penetration and we make the right play, we’re getting high-percentage threes. But we have to get a blend of inside-out. That’s where we have to grow.’’
In a statistical anomaly, center Karl-Anthony Towns took 10 three-pointers but did not attempt a free throw. Asked if he needed to stress post play more, Towns said he’s doing what the offense calls for him to do.
Towns had three of his four assists in the first half Tuesday, scoring 11 first-half points while taking just three three-pointers.
“He’s being double-teamed,” Thibodeau said of Towns. “It’s easy to say he should get in the post more. But he’s in there quite a bit; that’s actually how we get a lot of our threes. So when the double team comes he has the responsibility to hit the open man. But it’s also our responsibility to repost him. So we have to get that blend.’’
And the team has to get better in the third quarter.
“We say it every halftime,” LaVine said. “Don’t let this happen again. We’ve seen what happens when it has. A couple times we came out good in the third quarter and those are the games we’ve won. We gotta get re-energized. Gee whiz.’’