Whether old-school NBA coaches Gregg Popovich and Sam Mitchell like it or not, there’s an arms race growing by the season across their league and, as the Timberwolves were reminded once again in Monday’s loss at Boston, those who do not join in a three-point shooting barrage will fall behind.
A step slow perhaps due to their busy recent schedule and maybe a mile behind philosophically, the Wolves were outscored 36-6 on made three-pointers — that’s 12-2, if you’re keeping score at home — in a 14-point loss to the injury-depleted Celtics.
Golden State, more than any other NBA team, has surfed the wave in a game changed by statistical analytics and simple mathematics where three still is worth more than two. The Warriors have done so already to the tune of one NBA championship won last summer as well as their current 26-1 record that included an unprecedented 24-0 season start.
The Warriors average 13 three-pointers made. That’s well more than double the Wolves’ 5.5 average, which is second lowest in the league to only Brooklyn’s 5.1 made per game. The Wolves have made 149 threes all season; Golden State’s reigning MVP Stephen Curry has made 131 all by himself.
“It seems like the game is going this way,” Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio said. “A lot of shooters, and you see Golden State is having success with that kind of play. A lot of teams are going this way. It’s something we have to improve, our three-point shooters.”
That will have to come through individual development of players already on the roster and by adding better shooters to the roster through trades, the draft or signings. Wolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell said he think all three of his team’s youthful foundation — Andrew Wiggins, Karl Anthony-Towns and Zach LaVine — can grow into fine three-point shooters.
For now, the Wolves’ only real, proven three-point shooter is veteran guard Kevin Martin, and there’s a very good chance he will be dealt by February’s trade deadline to create more playing time for Wiggins and LaVine at the shooting-guard position.
“It’s tough,” Rubio said. “But we’re going to play to our strengths. Right now we’re not a really good shooting team, and we have to play inside and know where our strength is.”
Mitchell promises he knows a three-point shot is worth more than two.
“I like threes,” Mitchell said, “if you can make them.”
Winner of five NBA titles, Popovich doesn’t go that far, even if his team has spread the floor with shooters and used the three-pointer to win the 2014 NBA title and come within an eyelash of winning it all the season before that. He brings his Spurs team to Target Center on Wednesday night knowing well the three-point shot and its growing influence is here to stay, no matter how he feels about it.
“I still hate it,” Popovich told reporters playfully before a game at Toronto earlier this month. “I’ll never embrace it. I don’t think it’s basketball. I think it’s kind of like a circus sort of thing. Why don’t we have a 5-point shot? A 7-point shot? You know, where does it stop? But that’s just me. That’s just old-school. To a certain degree, you better embrace it or you’re going to lose. And every time we’ve won a championship, the three-point shot was a big part of it because it is so powerful.
“Nobody does it better than Golden State, and you know where they’re at. So it’s important. You can’t ignore it.”
The Wolves were reminded of that Monday, when the Celtics played without three starters. So they simply plugged shooting big man Kelly Olynyk into their lineup and coach Brad Stevens’ motion offense and he made three of Boston’s 12 three-pointers.
The Wolves just couldn’t keep pace shooting twos.
“It’s hard,” Towns said. “Every time you make a two-pointer, you take a step forward and every time they hit a three-pointer, you take two steps back.”