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Motivated Thunder see exciting yet untenable Timberwolves

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All eyes will be on Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

The artist formerly known as Steven Adams.
The artist formerly known as Steven Adams.
W. Bennett Berry

Since November 29th, the Wolves have achieved a record of 4-18. The wins have come over the Lakers, Nets, Jazz, and Kings. In other words, a Timberwolf playoff berth looks increasingly more unlikely with each passing day. A lot of the early momentum behind this team has subsided, and they may already be in full tank mode.

However, that doesn't necessarily mean it's all doom and gloom up in Minneapolis. The Timberwolves still have Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Taken individually, both Wiggins and Towns have been fantastic on the year.

Towns can defend, but most Wolves can't

Towns is averaging gaudy numbers offensively. 16 points and 9 rebounds a game on 53% shooting is ridiculously efficient, especially for a rookie only getting 29 minutes a game. But Towns is making a name for himself defensively as well. From Joseph Gill at Canis Hoopus:

"...he plays defense. Not just defense, but elite-level defense. Towns is currently 4th on the team in DRtg among players who have played over 100 minutes, and only established lock-down defenders Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince, and Ricky Rubio rank above him. When it comes to rim protection, KAT is already among the best. According to Nylon Calculus, opponents are only shooting 45.5% at the rim against him, 6th among centers who play over 25 minutes a night.

He also contests 37.4% of shots at the rim, 10th among centers who play over 25 minutes a night. He is one of 4 centers to be in top 10 in both categories (Hassan Whiteside, Pau Gasol, and Tim Duncan are the other 3). He’s also getting it done with blocks, ranking 6th in BPG with 1.86 and tied for 5th with a BLK% of 5.3%. His rebounding numbers are also fantastic, with Towns tied for 13th in RPG with 9.5, and in 11th in TRB% with 18.7%."

No doubt Towns defensive development has been helped along by the presence of Kevin Garnett. Once one of the best defenders in the league, Garnett now mainly plays an advisory role to his old franchise. Garnett will start, but not finish, every game. Tayshaun Prince is essentially in this same role, except that Prince is helping out Andrew Wiggins.

Still, the Wolves aren't defensively elite as a team. There are multiple reasons. Andrew Wiggins has the worst defensive box plus/minus rating in Minnesota's starting lineup, at -2.6. Zach LaVine sits in the same territory, with a rating of -2.5. For comparison, this is around where Enes Kanter (-2.8) and Anthony Morrow (-2.9) rank on the Thunder.

But then there's a whole slew of players who are just horrible. Andre Miller (-3.3), Kevin Martin (-3.4), Nikola Pekovic (-3.4), Shabazz Muhammad (-4.0) and Damjan Rudez (-4.0) all seem to have major problems. I can't attest to the abilities of Muhammad or Rudez, but I'm well aware of the other three. Miller is super old. Martin doesn't have the body to defend, and flops a lot. Pekovic is just way too slow and grounded to protect the rim.

So what we're really looking at is a Wolves team that can defend when certain players are on the floor. But the majority of Minnesota's good defenders are big men. So it's hard to put out a consistently effective lineup, especially when the majority of Minnesota's offense comes from their guards.

Wolves love getting to the line, Wiggins is the basis

The only offensive category in which the Wolves rank outside the worst third of the NBA is free throw rate. The Wolves get to the line more often than any other team in the league. Furthermore, the Wolves sink their free throws at the third best rate in the league. This is largely a team effort, though Wiggins, Rubio, and Martin will all generally get to the line at least twice a game.

Wolves fans are excited about Wiggins' ability to get to the line. But the focus isn't on winning now, and they want to see Wiggins develop more. From Lucas Seehafer at Canis Hoopus:

"Another question mark I have with Wiggins is in regards to his lack of a second move on offense. Wiggins' spin move is highly developed and is one of the best in the game; however, NBA teams have scouted it well and know it is coming when he drives. From time to time last season, Wiggins would pull out a step-back jumper off the drive, a move that would keep defenders on their toes and prevent them from zeroing in on his spin. This is anecdotal, but it seems as if Wiggins has completely abandoned his step-back this season and has instead intensified his focus on drawing contact and getting to the foul line as much as possible.

This in and of itself isn't a bad thing; in fact, it is quite the opposite. Wiggins is attempting 7.5 free throws per game (which places him in a tie for fifth most attempts per game), and that high of an amount helps mitigate some of his offensive inefficiency. However, he's shooting only 73.0% from the line, which limits the usefulness of the high number of free throw attempts.

Neglecting to diversify his offensive move set now will only be harmful for the future. Now should be the time for Wiggins to tinker and experiment on offense in an attempt to expand his offensive repertoire, but instead Wiggins has been relying heavily on his spin move and teams have done a good job snuffing it out."

Seehafer also mentioned the lack of three point shooting as limiting Wiggins' development. From my perspective, that's easy to see, as only one Timberwolf is shooting over 36% from three on the season (while taking at least a three per game). That player is Damjan Rudez, and he's a very small part of the offense. As a team, the Wolves take and make the fewest threes in the league.

OKC's situation, what they'll do

The fact that the Wolves' struggle from three should be re-assuring to Thunder fans. To be sure, the #1 issue for Oklahoma City this year has been defending the perimeter. The latest example came on Sunday night, when Damian Lillard shot 8 of 14 from beyond the arc. That performance was enroute to a clutch 115-110 Blazer victory.  As a team, the Thunder don't seem to struggle to defend the arc too much. When it comes to opponent three point percentage, the Thunder are 18th in the NBA. But OKC really seems to struggle to lock down individual shooters, particularly those that get hot off the dribble.

Anyway, the Thunder strategy for this game should be obvious. Push the pace, space the floor, and switch around screens to protect the paint.

The Thunder will also heavily emphasize their two stars, as the Timberwolves don't match up with Durant or Westbrook well. Westbrook shot over 45% against Minnesota three times out of four last season. And when Westbrook shot poorly, he was coming off of a game in Cleveland the night prior. Even Durant has been super effective while injured. In two matchups where Durant was considerably limited (once last year, once this pre-season), Durant shot over 50% both times. Simply put, Rubio and Prince aren't all-world defenders.

In general, the Thunder will also look to cut down on turnovers and secure more defensive rebounds. These are both areas that can bite the Thunder. It's simply because there aren't a ton of ballhandlers, and the Thunder like to focus on defending the shot first. However, there have been some complaints about a lack of ball movement on the bench, and I've seen a few comments point the finger of blame on Payne. That may be true, but Payne's offensive efficiency is hard to argue with at this point.

Anyway, I expect the Thunder to pull away from the Wolves at some point amidst a huge run, just because the Wolves only have so many successful lineup combos. If that doesn't happen, it's because Kevin Martin had an offensive explosion and OKC's three point defense fell asleep at the wheel.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 129, Minnesota Timberwolves 103.

What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2015-16 NBA Season Game 39
(Lost 1)

(Lost 6)
January 12th, 2016
The Target Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Fox Sports Network North
Injury Report: A clean bill of health!
Pre-Season Matchup: Oct 7 (W 122-99). Last Season: Dec 12 (W 111-92), Jan 26 (W 92-84), Mar 13 (W 113-99), Apr 15 (W 138-113)
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Ricky Rubio
Andre Roberson SG Andrew Wiggins
Kevin Durant SF Tayshaun Prince
Serge Ibaka PF Kevin Garnett
Steven Adams C Karl-Anthony Towns