When a team with playoff aspirations loses at home to a team that had lost 23 of its last 24 games — including one recently by 61 points — it is very hard to treat the occasion as just 1 of 82 games in a long NBA season.
Sure, the Wolves’ 101-93 loss to Memphis on Monday fits that description technically. But some games carry more weight even if they all count the same in the standings.
The proper bit of perspective from such a game, I think, is to be alarmed without overreacting. And it’s not overreacting to say this: The loss, in so many ways, was a microcosm of the issues that have hurt the Timberwolves and frustrated those who watch them all season. Precisely, it was these things:
*Defense: The final score tells you the offense was more of a problem than the defense on Monday. On balance, that’s probably true. But a defense that has been culpable more often than not over the course of this season was again a problem against Memphis.
The Grizzlies are missing key players and have the No. 28 offensive rating in the league out of 30 teams at 101.6. On Monday against the Wolves, their offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) was 106.4. The Wolves allowed the Grizzlies to make 15 three-pointers. For the season, the Grizzlies are 24th in the NBA at 9.1 made threes per game.
The Wolves are No. 24 in the NBA this season with a defensive rating of 108.9. They were No. 26 last year at 109.1. That is not a meaningful improvement.
*Minutes played: This has been a sore subject all season, with Wolves fans sometimes going overboard in their critiques of head coach Tom Thibodeau’s tight rotations and heavy minutes for starters. Monday’s game produced epic, almost comical levels — leaving plenty of room for legitimate criticism.
Three starters played at least 42 minutes (Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Andrew Wiggins), while Karl-Anthony Towns played 39. Only three bench players saw action, including Tyus Jones with a spare 5 minutes, 51 seconds.
Yes, Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose are hurt. But I’ve asked before, so I’ll ask again: What’s the point of having G-League guys or other depth players like Marcus-Georges Hunt if they’re never (or rarely) going to play. It’s a failure of roster construction, a failure of player development or a failure of trust.
*Fourth quarter troubles: It would be easier to dismiss the heavy minutes if not for two things. One, players are starting to talk about being tired. Two, it’s possible those extended minutes are hurting the Wolves at the end.
Minnesota is the fifth-best team in the NBA in first-quarter scoring margin (+1.7 points), No. 11 in second-quarter margin (+0.6), No. 12 in third-quarter margin (+0.5 points) and No. 26 in fourth-quarter margin (minus-0.8 points) in the NBA.
NBA fourth quarters play out differently than the first three, so it’s not right to say fatigue is directly responsible for that disparity. But it’s likely tired legs are a factor. On Monday, the Wolves were outscored 23-11 in a dismal fourth quarter that sealed their fate.
*Playing down to an opponent: The Wolves have had more than their share of frustrating losses to inferior opponents this season — games offset, in large part, by a solid showing against the teams they’re battling against for Western Conference playoff positioning.
Per Thunder beat writer Fred Katz, the Wolves are now 17-11 against teams with sub-.500 records this season, the worst mark of any current playoff team.
The Memphis game was the start of a relatively easy closing stretch for Minnesota, but if it continues to play down to opponents the favorable schedule won’t matter.
*A lack of overall growth: This one is a little harder to quantify, but there is a growing sense that the steps forward this season have been a result more of veteran additions than any growth from cornerstone young players Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. When Butler is healthy, this is a different team. That’s a fact, not necessarily an indictment. But it is troubling to see the extent to which this team still struggles without him.
You add all of that up, and you say: Wow, this team must be terrible. They’re not. The Wolves are still 42-33 and still very much in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04. They’re even still in reasonable shape to move up from the No. 8 spot they currently occupy into a seed that would at least give them a fighting chance in the first round.
The problems outlined above — ones magnified Monday in a damaging but not hope-killing loss — might be more questions for the offseason than the stretch run. But for all the progress made this season, defense, depth and overall growth remain legitimate concerns and impediments to an elevated ceiling.