The Timberwolves already changed their season’s course in midstream once when starting shooting guard Zach LaVine tore a knee ligament at February’s start.
Must they do so all over again now that Nemanja Bjelica, too, is lost for the season?
The Wolves reconfigured themselves after LaVine’s injury, allowing room for fellow young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to grow.
The six-game losing streak the Wolves ended with Tuesday’s 115-114 comeback victory at Indiana and an accompanying defensive regression largely coincided with Bjelica’s broken foot sustained at Boston two weeks ago.
Of course, both also coincided with a winless three-game trip that started in Boston and crushed their playoff aspirations.
After each situation, Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau has delivered the same message for a team he said can replace its missing parts collectively rather than individually: Adapt or else.
“That’s part of this,” Thibodeau said. “It’s how quickly can you adapt? Injuries happen. Foul trouble can happen. So there are different guys in the rotation and that’s why it’s so important for everyone to understand what their job is and to execute your job. That’s where we have to get better.”
The Wolves signed veteran forward Omri Casspi for the rest of the season, hoping he can deliver many of the same things Bjelica provided. But Casspi is learning new teammates and a new system while also recovering from a broken thumb, a set of challenging circumstances that left him with five personal fouls and two points in 11 minutes played Tuesday in Indianapolis.
So Thibodeau sought production at power forward by playing starter Gorgui Dieng 44 minutes, and Dieng responded with a 19-point, six-rebound game on a night when Ricky Rubio’s three free throws with 3.4 seconds left won the game.
LaVine’s injury left the Wolves without one of their three young stars and without by far their greatest three-point threat as well. Bjelica’s injury seems secondary, considering he averaged 6.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 18.2 minutes off the bench this season.
But Thibodeau ticks off a list of attributes now gone after Bjelica’s season-ending surgery, starting with rebounding. Bjelica had three double-double games in his past eight before he was injured.
“You forget how big he is,” Thibodeau said.
Bjelica was playing his best ball of the season just when he landed innocently enough on his left foot during a drive to the basket. He had developed a certain chemistry with Rubio and was playing significant minutes with both the starting and second units, often in the game’s final minutes because his shooting range at power forward spread the floor for Towns and Wiggins.
“He was playing at a really high level,” Thibodeau said.
The Wolves started the season in need of more shooting and then lost both LaVine and Bjelica. If healthy and acclimated, Casspi can provide that.
“It’s going,” Casspi said when asked about adapting to his new team. “I’m trying to figure out things on the run here, not step on anybody’s toes and figure out the game, you know? There are some adjustments I need to make obviously with the guys around me, so they know how to play with me. I’ve been doing this a long time, so it’s a process.”
That process has only nine games left this season. Casspi is playing with his right shooting thumb still wrapped, although the wrap he wore Tuesday was slighter than previous versions. He has played only 27 games this season.
“It’s hard when you’ve missed the time he has missed and you’re coming off an injury trying to learn a new system,” Thibodeau said. “It’s a challenge. You just have to work at it. When he’s out there now, it’s a much smaller [offensive] package; it has to be because there’s no way to catch up after he has missed the amount of time he has. But he has done a good job.
“We need shooting and that’s something he can provide. It opens up the floor. When teams are loading up on Karl and Wig, we have to be able to provide space.”