It seems like a vibe killer to wallow in Minnesota’s fourth-quarter struggles amid victories. The Timberwolves have won three straight games, correcting course in some sense to work their way back to .500.
Fans are happy with that, regardless of the path. It’s a much better place to be than where the Wolves (8-8) were a week ago, struggling to even put forth a professional effort. So it’s easy to look past poor closing performances, shrug and say, “A win is a win.”
But it’s not that simple with these Timberwolves. The expectation isn’t to meet what Minnesota did a year ago — when it reached the first round of the playoffs via the play-in — but exceed it. That’s why an organization makes a move like the Wolves made in July, dealing a number of young, talented players and a plethora of first-round draft picks to obtain the services of center Rudy Gobert.
The goals are higher with this group. They are to succeed at a high level in the regular season, then make a legitimate playoff push. That’s why the “how” matters, even in wins. Good teams do things a certain way, and great teams another.
Great teams find ways to perform in the final quarter, particularly in the final five minutes, when so many games, particularly playoff games, are decided. They do not go 7 for 21 shooting in the final quarter of a game in Cleveland, allowing a 22-point fourth-quarter advantage to shrink to two. And they do not go 4 for 18 with six turnovers in the fourth quarter in Philadelphia as a 15-point advantage with eight minutes to play whittles to one in the closing seconds. They especially don’t do that against depleted opposing rosters.
That’s where Minnesota needs to grow, and now. Last year’s Wolves never quite figured out how to close games, particularly on the offensive end. That group blossomed to such a high degree over the course of the season, but late-game offensive execution was consistently one of the team’s major kryptonites, along with rebounding.
And those two issues sunk the season in that first-round playoff series loss to Memphis, where three of the Timberwolves’ four losses came in games the Wolves led by 10-plus points in the final quarter.
It was after that series that Timberwolves coach Chris Finch reflected upon those season-long issues and the ways in which they show themselves at the season’s climax.
“We know what we’ve learned about ourselves and what we need to do to be better. And how those habits have to be ingrained early and carried out every single night so they stand up when you need it most,” Finch said after the Game 6 loss to Memphis. “I think that’s something that now resonates with the players when you’re harping on it on a daily basis, but they haven’t yet really paid the price for it. Those are just lessons that you learn. Do not touch that, it’s hot-type stuff.”
It was after that defeat that Finch referred to Memphis as a team that didn’t beat itself, and lamented that Minnesota had not yet evolved to that point.
“But that’s OK in the sense that we’re still learning, and playing in these high-leverage situations is huge for us. I thought composure-wise, again, we showed it in our shot selection in the fourth (quarter), and it’s baked in our DNA right now, and we know we have to learn from this,” Finch said. “We’re not all just going to be able to save the day. But moving forward we’ll learn, and we’ll have hopefully grown from it.”
Yet the recent wins — yes, wins — in Cleveland and Philadelphia suggests that growth is still ongoing. For instance, on Saturday, Finch in the locker room told his team, “Hey, turnovers.”
“This is what’s cost us in other games and almost did again tonight,” he said. “We have to recognize this. Just a lot of carelessness out there.”
It’s easy to point to Gobert and note the Timberwolves’ roster is different and, thus, last year’s team and this one are two different entities. But when it comes to closing, the game will often belong in the hands of Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns.
That trio, as well as those around them, have to find a way to play better basketball at the times that matter most in games, so they can win the games that matter most at the end of the season.