Having won two straight games in similar fashion – building a lead, then rebuffing a late run by the opponent -- even Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau admitted he’s starting to see some real, tangible improvement in his team’s play, especially on defense.
“Again, you don’t want to make it more than it is,’’ Thibodeau cautioned after Wednesday’s victory over Houston, one that ended the Rockets’ nine-game winning streak.
But, Thibodeau said, what he saw Wednesday was more toughness, more cohesion. “We have to take a look at the film, see what we can do better, and get ready for Oklahoma City,’’ he said. “One game doesn’t solve everything for us. But I like the direction we’re moving in now. We have to continue to work on it. I few do that, we can be a very well-balanced team and win games.’’
But yes, there are real signs the Wolves are starting to play a better brand of basketball, despite what a 13-26 record might indicate.
Over the last month the Wolves are 7-8, a stretch that began with a 99-94 victory at Chicago Dec. 13.
Not surprisingly, their ratings in that span are pretty good, too.
The team is a plus-2.3 in net rating, eighth-best in the league. That includes a 104.6 defensive rating (sixth) and a 106.8 offensive rating (15th).
Ratings are based on points per 100 possessions scored and allowed.
A month – 15 games – is a pretty good sample size, and it points a team becoming more connected.
“It’s just discipline,” Karl-Anthony Towns said. “We’ve had games where we played great defense for three quarters. Then in the fourth quarter, or for stretches in games, we just let it go. We’ve done a good job of closing out games here [lately]. Defensively we’ve been more stable.’’
There has been more consistency on both ends of the floor. Both Dallas on Monday and Houston Wednesday made late pushes. But the Wolves – who as recently as Saturday were out-scored 11-0 to end the game in a 94-92 loss to Utah – were able to keep the ball moving and keep getting good shots the past two games.
Wednesday the Wolves bench pushed a 12-point lead to 20 early in the fourth quarter. Then, after the Rockets has pulled to within 12 with 2:26 left in the game, Ricky Rubio found Shabazz Muhammad in the corner, and his three-pointer essentially iced the game.
But perhaps the most significant improvement has come on defense. This after months of work on individual work on technique and working on team schemes.
“I can see that we’ve improved,’’ Thibodeau said. “Conceptually, I think, there’s been a better understanding. Still, at times, we can be a step behind. But I think the more you do it in games, the better you get at it. And I think our players have an understanding of how important it is not to take any plays off.’’
So often this season the Wolves would work on one thing only to see lapses elsewhere. They would work on perimeter defense and get leaky in the paint. But Wednesday the Wolves held the Rockets down both on the perimeter and on the inside.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,’’ Towns said. “We’ve won two games in a row. We have a lot of work to do. For two games straight, for the last month, we’ve been defending pretty well. So it’s on us to continue to build on it. We have a lot of things we have to continue to work on. But it’s good to see that progress is being made.’’
Here are some other items from today’s practice:
--Thibodeau said Zach LaVine, who missed Wednesday’s game with a hip contusion, was feeling a little better. But he did mostly rehab today and took a few shots. He is listed as questionable for Friday’s game with the Thunder.
--Again Thibodeau praised the play of his bench, which pushed that 12-point lead to 20 early in the fourth quarter Wednesday.
--Towns remains seventh in All Star voting among Western Conference frontcourt, and LaVine remains 10th among Western Conference guards.
--After Wednesday’s game Towns was asked about his long pass to Wiggins for a fast-break layup late in the third quarter, during an 8-2 run to end the quarter. Towns joked about doing an Aaron Rodgers impersonation. Thursday he joked about how he tries those passes all the time while playing video games, and that it usually works. But Wednesday? “I just saw Andrew Wiggins on a streak rout. I knew I had to put it in a spot where only Andrew could get it. And I’m glad I was able to make a play.’’
Does he have time to weight the risk and reward before attempting passes like that? “The way I play, I don’t think about the risk, I think about the reward.’’