Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau knew there might be a problem when the fourth quarter began Wednesday night. His team led by 26 points over Orlando. As Wolves reserves went out to start the quarter, Thibodeau noticed Magic coach Frank Vogel had all five of his starters out there.
“Matching up with the starters was a concern,” Thibodeau said. “And the way they shoot the three, I knew the lead wasn’t safe.”
Orlando scored two quick buckets and, with the lead down to 22, Thibodeau called a timeout with 10 minutes, 23 seconds left. With 9:29 left and the lead down to 17, Thibodeau put starters Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson back in. Seconds later, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins also returned.
And the Orlando run continued. By the time Butler hit a three-pointer with 5:06 left, that 26-point lead had dwindled to eight.
The Wolves held on, making just enough free throws to win 124-118 at Target Center. But the final 12 minutes showed just how fragile the Wolves have been in the fourth quarter, especially of late.
In a home loss to Detroit on Sunday, the Wolves led by 11 with 9:57 left before being outscored 27-13 the rest of the way. At Charlotte the following night, the Wolves were within four entering the fourth before fading down the stretch.
Wednesday, the Wolves shot 4-for-23 while being outscored 38-18 in the fourth quarter.
It’s not all on the offense, of course. Orlando shot 60 percent in the fourth quarter Wednesday. Afterward, noting his team had scored 124 points, Thibodeau said: “My concern is what we’re doing defensively. If we’re going to go anywhere, we have to correct that.”
Butler agreed. “We just don’t guard anybody,” he said. “Haven’t all year, either.”
But an offense that is slowing down at crunchtime is an issue, too. Wednesday, for example, the Wolves outscored Orlando 41-18 in the third quarter, shooting 12-for-19 from the floor, including 4-for-7 from three-point range. All five starters scored at least six points.
Gibson said complacency was a problem. “We have to play like we’re down 20 rather than up 20,” he said. “When you try to guard a lead, things tend to happen. When you play like you have nothing to lose, you keep playing fast.”
It appeared again Wednesday that the Wolves offense changed a bit, too. In the third quarter, there was good ball movement that stressed the Magic, resulting in the Wolves getting 15 free-throw attempts. In crunchtime, the Wolves went mainly with a pick-and-roll offense that seemed to limit the ball movement.
The Wolves are sixth in the NBA with a 107.2 offensive rating. Coupled with a 106.9 defensive rating (23rd in the league), they are 17th in the league in net rating (plus-0.3). That’s overall.
But when you look at the numbers over the first three quarters of games and the Wolves are fourth on offense (109.8), 15th on defense (104.8) and fifth overall in net rating (plus-5.0).
But the fourth quarter alone? The Wolves are 28th on offense (98.3), 27th on defense (113.6) and last in net rating (minus-15.4).
Something is definitely happening in the fourth quarter.
“We just have to continue moving the ball, moving bodies,” Teague said. “We do that we’re a better team. Obviously, in the fourth quarter [Wednesday] the ball started sticking. … We’re starting not to move the ball. It’s sticking. We’re running pick-and-rolls rather than playing where everybody touches it, feels it.”
As Thibodeau said, the pick-and-roll is an NBA crunchtime staple. “In the pick-and-roll game, there is going to be pressure on the rim, some of your best ball movement comes off pick-and-roll,” Thibodeau said. “That’s what most teams are running in the fourth quarter.”
The message, then, might be executing it better. Thibodeau also said he felt his players were getting to the rim in the fourth quarter but weren’t always finishing.
“I want to take a look at the film because there was a lot of penetration [Wednesday] and there is contact,” Thibodeau said. “Maybe we’re not going strong enough in the fourth.”
Bottom line? The fourth quarter is harder, and the Wolves need to be tougher.
“You can’t be casual,” Thibodeau said. “The intensity of the fourth quarter is different, so you have to execute. It comes down to being strong.”