The Timberwolves were under pressure Monday night. They had blown two leads to lose twice during a home-stand that was supposed to provide comfort. They were facing a good Portland team as the fan base exuded doubt in coach Tom Thibodeau’s sideline rants and his team’s uneven play.
Rarely has a Minnesota team had its body language studied like this year’s Timberwolves. I spent Monday night watching closely. Here’s what I saw:
Pregame: Thibodeau holds his news conference in a hallway outside of the team’s locker room at 5:15 p.m. When answering questions, he turns his eyes downward and sounds as if he’s reading from a memorized script. He praises his team’s offense and critiques its defense and situational play.
The locker room is loose and friendly. Karl-Anthony Towns, Cole Aldrich and Aaron Brooks joke and chat with reporters. Shabazz Muhammad agrees to a quick interview. Andrew Wiggins talks with an assistant coach.
As the players warm up on the court before the game, Thibodeau sits alone on the bench, writing on a clipboard. The players are introduced, then Thibodeau. With a spotlight shining on him, he continues to write on his clipboard.
Players begin hugging and slapping hands. Jimmy Butler is one of the players who goes out of his way to embrace every member of the team and staff.
Game: Thibodeau begins the game on the bench but quickly rises and approaches midcourt. On the Wolves’ first defensive possession, his voice is the loudest in the arena, as he yells “Pick!”
The Blazers score easily using the pick-and-roll. Thibodeau flaps his arms, smacks his legs, screams at officials but does not receive a technical foul.
In the first quarter, he screams at an official, then apologizes, saying, “My fault, my fault.”
Players on the bench stand early in the game and react with cheers after successful plays, but the arena feels dead.
Butler, who injured his back in the previous game, takes his first break and is helped into a large back brace.
During the first timeout, bench players gaze around the arena and the five players being instructed by Thibodeau glance at the in-game entertainment on the video screens.
Portland’s Al-Farouq Aminu makes a three-pointer as Wiggins arrives late. Thibodeau stares at Wiggins with his arms wide. Wiggins does not seem to notice. Thibodeau replaces Wiggins with Marcus Georges-Hunt. Wiggins spends the next timeout watching the video screen.
Gorgui Dieng hits the front of the rim with a long shot. Thibodeau slumps. Towns misses a short shot. Thibodeau turns to the scorer’s table in disgust. The Blazers hit a three-pointer. Thibodeau repeats a curse word to himself, then calls Butler back into the game.
Thibodeau shows anger in the next huddle, then Wiggins gets beat for a layup. A minute later, he appears to scream “Wake up!” at Towns, although he could have been yelling at an official.
As the half ends, Thibodeau mutters to himself and walks off the court.
The second half begins with more defensive lapses and Thibodeau muttering.
In the fourth quarter, with Butler on the bench, the Blazers score nine straight points. The crowd boos.
Then Jamal Crawford makes a three-pointer just before the shot clock expires to make it 97-90.
Wolves players have displayed little emotion all night. When Crawford steals the ball at midcourt, fights for possession and pushes it ahead for a Butler dunk, the two veterans leap and bump each other. For the first time all night, the arena reacts as if it is watching a winning team.
Butler and Crawford dominate the scoring and the game down the stretch, with Butler’s late free-throws securing a 108-107 victory as the arena fills with noise.
At the final horn, Thibs exchanges quick hand slaps with a couple of assistant coaches as he quickly heads off the court. He does not smile.
Postgame: Thibodeau speaks animatedly about Butler and Crawford, and acknowledges that Towns and Wiggins must learn to play defense in the NBA. “This isn’t college,” he said.
In the locker room, Crawford and Butler sit next to one another, Butler icing his knees. After the throng of reporters leaves, I ask Crawford if this victory was unusually important because of the atmosphere around the team.
“It’s been choppy,” he said. “But it does take time for new players to learn to play together. If you remember the Heat after they first got LeBron, they took a while to start winning.”
He’s right. That Heat team was 10-8 in October and November.
Butler says of the Wolves’ youngsters: “They can be as good as they want to be, but you’ve got to do it every night. They’ve got to play hard.”
The Wolves had won another game, while losing another edition of the Body Language Olympics.