OKLAHOMA CITY – In the midst of a losing streak that still includes all of 2016, the Timberwolves made more three-point shots than the opposition during Wednesday’s 107-104 loss at Houston, a matchup of the NBA’s most reluctant long-distance shooting team and its most prolific.
Left behind in the league’s growing arms race pushed by the Rockets and defending champion Golden State, the Wolves little by little might be figuring out how they can participate in the three-point fest: Ricky Rubio is shooting 40 percent from that range in the last month. Shabazz Muhammad has discovered his corner spot. Rookie Nemanja Bjelica is reasserting himself. And both Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine have shaken off significant shooting slumps, if only for a night or two so far, in recent games.
Edging the three-point happy Rockets 8-7 in that category Wednesday, are the Wolves finally starting to find their shots? Or are their shots finding them?
“The shot’s finding me,” said Bjelica, who has made two three-pointers in each of his past three games. “The season is long. We still need to figure out how we’re going to play. I just need to be ready.”
Interim head coach Sam Mitchell has preached to Bjelica, Muhammad, LaVine, Wiggins and others they need to contribute in other ways when their shot abandons them. In a season of errant marksmanship, Mitchell calls rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns his team’s best shooter and sat accomplished sniper Kevin Martin seven games before bringing him back.
Bjelica started the season strong, then played less and less as he found foul trouble more and more. Even when he played often, Mitchell implored him to shoot more and called him unselfish to a fault until Bjelica started hoisting shots from well beyond the three-point line.
“He’s competing, but physically he’s not there yet,” Mitchell said. “Everybody gives up something every night. Your intellect has to make up for what you don’t have physically. I don’t think he understands the NBA game yet. He doesn’t know the players. His intellect isn’t going to make up that gap for what he lacks some nights. As time goes on, he will. But he’s got to learn what he doesn’t know right now and he’s learning.”
Bjelica has made eight of his past 11 three-point attempts and has shown both the playmaking instincts that made him Euroleague MVP last season and enough willingness to shoot.
“It’s not that I don’t like to shoot threes, but sometimes I want to do something extra,” said Bjelica, a NBA rookie still getting accustomed to bigger, better players and an 82-game season at age 27. “Of course, I need time to learn everything here. I think I just need to keep working and be ready for every game.”
Muhammad averaged 19.3 points and showed confidence finding the corner three-pointer in three consecutive games before he went 1-for-5 from the field and played fewer than 16 minutes on Wednesday.
“I feel comfortable there,” Muhammad said about shooting the corner three before he missed the only one he attempted Wednesday.
LaVine hadn’t made a three-point shot in eight consecutive games before he broke through with three in Tuesday’s home loss to Oklahoma City, whom the Wolves play for the second time in three days on Friday.
LaVine made one of five shots — and the only three he attempted — and played 15 minutes Wednesday at Houston.
Muhammad credits that recent stretch — until Wednesday, that is — to increased playing time, while Mitchell attributes more playing time to Muhammad for passing the ball and playing defense.
“I just think the opportunity,” Muhammad said Tuesday. “I mean, I’m getting more minutes. I always knew I could be really efficient on offense and at the defensive end. I thought, with the opportunity, I could be a good player in this league.”
Muhammad said he has found comfort playing with Wiggins and with Rubio finding him for open shots, particularly in the corners.
“We’ve really found something,” Muhammad said. “Me and Wig on the wings with Ricky is really good. We can get up and down the court. That’s what I tell Wig: Run a little bit more. I think we’re really athletic. We can be a really good tandem in the future.”