If you've watched all or even some of the Timberwolves' first seven games this season, including Monday's 125-122 overtime victory at Miami, you might be a little confused.
See, this year's Wolves appear very similar to last year's Wolves in a lot of ways so far. Their offense is great (fourth in offensive rating). Their defense has been suspect (last in the league in defensive rating). Their bench still isn't contributing much, while their starters are logging heavy minutes. They're getting leads, then giving them back.
But these Wolves also have played five tossup games. In the first tossup game at San Antonio, the Wolves didn't execute down the stretch and lost by eight. But in the past four of those, they've secured three three-point wins and a two-point win.
Considering last year's Timberwolves lost their first 10 games that were decided by four points or fewer and didn't win their first such game until their 43rd game of the season, this is a pretty significant difference.
How do we make sense of a team that is so very much the same for most of the game and yet so completely different at the end? Let's take a look at some contributing factors:
• The first 44 minutes or so of Wolves games look the same as they did last year largely because the defense is still very much a work in progress. You can see flashes of it getting better. But until the defense is consistently good, teams are going to make runs at the Wolves and get back into games.
• The flow of games also looks the same because the Wolves' bench, while sporting some better players than in years past, still is not producing much. The group still ranks 29th in the NBA in bench minutes played this season and 28th in efficiency, per Hoops Stats, after ranking last in both categories last season.
The bench still is giving back a lot of leads the starters have gained, while the starters still are learning to play with each other and haven't been as dominant as they might be down the road, leaving things tight at the end.
• So why have the Wolves been able to win the exact types of games they were losing last year? Some of it could just be small sample size. Still, from an 0-10 start last year in such situations to 4-0 demands further investigation. To start, their young stars, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, are a year older and look more confident in end of game situations.
They've been joined on the court by a stabilizing star in Jimmy Butler, a point guard who can distribute and create his own offense in Jeff Teague and a veteran in Taj Gibson who has seen every situation multiple times. Each of those players has contributed meaningfully to close wins.
In that sense, coach/personnel boss Tom Thibodeau's vision already is being realized. I don't know if I'd rather have Teague than Ricky Rubio for all 48 minutes, but I like him a lot better in the last four. Butler already is the heartbeat of the team. Gibson and reserve Jamal Crawford are imperfect but useful players who aren't afraid of the moment.
Eventually, the Wolves will need to become a better 48-minute team so they don't have to scramble and claw for every win. That's the next step, and it's not guaranteed.
For now, being a better team in the closing moments of games will have to suffice.