OAKLAND, CALIF. – Strategically designed to execute what its players do best, the Timberwolves offense ranks among the NBA leaders in multiple statistical categories, including third in overall efficiency rating.
And yet there often are nights such as Wednesday’s loss at Portland and Thursday’s loss at Golden State when the math simply does not add up against opponents that chuck — and make — three-pointers at the dizzying frequency that particularly a team like the Warriors does.
At Portland, the Trail Blazers outscored the Wolves 51-18 on three-pointers and won by nine. At Golden State, the Warriors outscored the Wolves 63-18 on threes and won by 13. On both nights, the opponent made more three-point shots than the Wolves attempted.
Before that, Houston last week outscored them 51-24 on threes and even before that, Brooklyn — Saturday night’s opponent at Target Center — did so 42-3 in a Nets victory early this month.
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau reminds that his offense does what all successful teams do: “Play to your strengths and cover up your weaknesses.”
The Wolves have players such as Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins who excel at driving the ball, drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line, but they lack the kind of deadeye shooter from distance that the Warriors — the league leader in three-point percentage at 39.6 — possess in the great Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.
“You can’t beat the Warriors playing two versus three,” Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “You’ve got to keep going. You can’t trade twos for threes.”
The Wolves’ best three-point shooter by both percentage and volume since they traded Zach LaVine probably is Towns. Nemanja Bjelica shoots a better percentage — 44.4 percent to Towns’ 40.8 — but has attempted 81 threes to Towns’ 186. The Wolves, as a team, rank last in the NBA at 7.9 made threes per game.
Thursday, the Warriors built leads of 11 in the first quarter and 16 in the second against a Wolves team that played without injured Butler for the fourth game in a row. Golden State cut to the basket for layups and shot from deep, and every time the Wolves drew within six or seven points, the Warriors seemingly answered with a three-pointer.
Or three or four of them.
“It was going to be a challenge for us coming in,” Thibodeau said in very succinct postgame comments, “but I thought we had our chances.”
When the Wolves chopped a 12-point deficit at halftime to just 77-72 fewer than three minutes into the third quarter, Thompson simply made four threes in the next 2½ minutes. He made his first six three-point attempts and didn’t miss one until the fourth quarter’s opening minutes.
Three is one more than two, so you crunch the numbers.
“Simple math for sure, but it’s the timely threes,” Wolves veteran guard Jamal Crawford said. “It’s deflating. You can be in the game within three to five points and then they hit three threes and it goes from five to 14 that fast. And it really is that fast, so you have to weather that storm and be mentally tough.”
Crawford, for one, tried to shoot the Wolves back into the game by scoring 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, but he could get them no closer than 117-111 with 4½ minutes left.
Guess what happened next?
Thompson made a three and Curry not long after made another.
“That’s disheartening, and they have guys who can do it,” said Crawford, who played 25½ minutes in his second game back from a sprained toe. “We have a ways to go to get to them.”
Curry shot 5-for-9 on threes, matched Thompson’s scoring with 25 points and yet had something of an off night by his standards. Durant, meanwhile, made six threes and delivered a triple-double with 28 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds.
“We did a great job fighting all night,” Towns said. “But it just seemed when we got so close, it just started raining threes again. Contested, uncontested, it didn’t matter. They hit them when they needed to hit them. That’s the sign of a championship team right there.”
It also was another reminder of where the Wolves are — even without Butler — and where they still must go to be a team that causes as much of what Crawford calls “confusion” in its opponents.
”We’re a long ways from that,” Crawford said. “But we’ll continue to try to build. We just have to continue to put it in the rear view and learn how we can get better from that and try to apply it to what we’re doing.”