Instead of talking about Xs and Os, Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau talked about mental challenges and maintaining an edge.
Two things, perhaps, his team is struggling with as the All-Star break approaches.
On Friday the Wolves grabbed an early 15-point lead over visiting —and beat up — New Orleans, only to trail by as many as 21 late, losing 122-106 after the Pelicans shot 60 percent from the field.
Remember when the Wolves appeared to be turning a corner? In 15 January games the Wolves, who opened the season struggling mightily on defense, went 8-7 thanks to a defensive rating of 105.1 that was eighth best in the league over that stretch.
Even Thibodeau thought the team was starting to do things better.
And then February came, and the losses returned. The Wolves are 1-5 in six February games, and their 120.6 defensive rating — points given up per 100 possessions — is dead last in the league. Opponents have shot 50.8 percent against the Wolves in February.
“I think it’s the mental part of the challenge right now, where we are in the season,’’ Thibodeau said. “You have to continually put the work into it, and you have to maintain your edge. You’re building habits, and if you let up just a little bit, that’s all it takes. We have to get the urgency back. You can’t let your guard down.’’
As he has said many times, Thibodeau pointed out the Wolves were scoring enough to win. Assists and turnovers — two areas he has stressed all season — are showing improvement. The Wovles, 11th in the league in assists over the course of the season, are seventh in the league (24.9) in the past 10 games. Turnovers? Minnesota is 19th this season at 14.4 per game, but the Wolves are tied for third (12.2) over the past 10.
But defense continues to be a problem.
Thibodeau indicated his team might be a bit worn out mentally with the All Star break — which is coming a bit later this season — three games away.
“Well, the mental part of it, yeah,’’ he said. “It’s a long season. Everyone is faced with the same challenges. So that’s our challenge, to not go on the break before we get to the break. Just concentrate on what’s in front of us. … We’ve scored plenty, high assists, we’ve gotten the turnovers down. The big things is the defense. That’s the thing we have to lock into every day. We have to commit to improve.’’
• Thibodeau said rookie guard Kris Dunn, who returned to action Friday after missing four games because of a sore hand, came out of the game OK, though he had a bit of rust to work off. Dunn was 0-for-2 with four fouls in a little less than 9 minutes of playing time.
“He had a good practice today,’’ Thibodeau said. “I can tell the way he’s catching and shooting that he’s feeling better now.’’
• Despite struggling in recent games, Thibodeau still wants backup forward Nemanja Bjelica to keep shooting.
“Everyone on this team is confident in his shooting ability,’’ he said. “I think he needs a couple easy opens. But when he’s open, shoot. It’s that simple.’’