During the second quarter Tuesday night, Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau watched his players meandering back on defense. Thibodeau, who spends every minute of every game screaming from the sideline, matched his vocals with choreography.
He paced onto the court (which is forbidden) and to the midcourt stripe (which is forbidden) while adopting the posture of a man watching the end of a horse race, his house wagered on a limping nag.
Nudge a Wolves fan these days, and they’ll ask why Thibodeau yells so much.
Watch the Wolves play the way they did Tuesday, and you wonder why he ever stops.
The Wolves should have beaten the Washington Wizards on Tuesay night at Target Center. They lost, 92-89, blowing a 12-point third-quarter lead and looking lost down the stretch.
They are 12-9. There is nothing wrong with their record. That does not mean there is nothing wrong.
They are on pace to win about 47 games while learning to play together in a league in which cohesion is difficult and vital.
For a franchise that has won 50 games four times — and never since 2004, and never without Kevin Garnett — this is tangible progress, mixed with unsightly regressions.
If you’re watching the standings, you might be impressed. If you’re watching the games, you’re probably worried. The Wolves are not very good at defense, even though their head coach’s reputation within NBA coaching ranks is largely based on defensive coordination, and they are not very good at finding the right shot at the right time.
Tuesday, they let a Wizards team missing star point guard John Wall get whatever shot it wanted down the stretch. Think of this: The Wolves have added two energetic defenders in Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler, and they still play lousy defense as a team.
If the Wolves are going to become a championship contender, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins will have to put up more of a fight.
And if yelling at them doesn’t work, Thibodeau at some point will have to bench them, however briefly, when they lapse.
In the NBA.com defensive player ratings, Gibson ranks 80th, Wiggins 93rd and Butler 100th. Towns ranks 329th.
Now, I don’t take defensive ratings as gospel, but a strong, athletic 7-footer who cares enough to play every game and run the floor should rank, oh, somewhere in the top 100, even if you calculate your ratings with a crayon and an abacus.
Too often Towns lags behind the play to argue foul calls, and too often he reacts poorly on pick-and-rolls. Sometimes he simply looks like he’s playing a defense that Thibodeau isn’t coaching.
After the game, Thibodeau looked like he was at a loss, rubbing his face and speaking in low tones. Asked if Towns could have been more active defensively, Thibodeau said, “At times, yeah.”
There are moments in interviews when the two don’t seem to be on the same chalkboard, and the ceiling of the Wolves’ success might be determined by his ability to get Towns and Wiggins to believe that defense wins championships, even if that’s only half-true.
Despite defensive problems, the Wolves are positioned to succeed. The best team in franchise history, the 2003-04 edition, was 12-9 after 21 games.
Thibodeau coached with desperation Tuesday. He played each of his starters at least 37 minutes, while none of the Wizards played more than 34. Thibodeau knew traveling to play Wednesday at New Orleans is a likely loss, so he pushed his team, and it wilted.
Shabazz Muhammad produced zero points in 4 minutes and played horrific defense. Gorgui Dieng produced one point in 15 minutes and passed up open shots near the basket. The Wizards got double-digit scoring out of one starter yet won with a double-digit comeback on the road against what is supposed to be a good team.
A record of 12-9 looks admirable unless you watch the games and hear Thibodeau howling like a trapped bear.