It may not seem like it, but it’s been more than 20 years since teenage phenoms Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury first warmed up a frigid Minneapolis winter with an entertaining brand of basketball that eventually led to the franchise’s first playoff appearances under the late Flip Saunders. And the Minnesota Timberwolves have been attempting to recapture that mid-’90’s magic ever since.
Ultimately, the arrival of Marbury and Garnett sparked an impressive run of eight straight playoff appearances that ended with an unsuccessful trip to the 2004 Western Conference Finals. But that was 12 years ago, and although Minnesota’s roster currently includes a collection of young talent reminiscent of a few of those teams, these Timberwolves are still struggling to meet even the most modest of expectations.
Before earning a badly-needed victory by beating Jimmy Butler’s Bulls 99-94 on Tuesday night in Chicago, the Wolves had dropped four straight and eight of their last nine games. Most noticeably, Minnesota’s porous defense has consistently negated its best offensive efforts, and the team’s young core consisting of 21-year olds Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine simply aren’t experienced enough to dig the Wolves out of the 7-18 hole that they’re currently in.
Last weekend, the troubled T-Wolves missed a valuable opportunity to turn things around with a win over the star-studded Golden State Warriors when Wiggins and company couldn’t stop their opponents from erasing a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter. As usual, Wiggins showed flashes of the brilliance that once labelled him the next LeBron, Towns left everyone in awe with his agility and low-post athleticism, and LaVine continued to prove that he’s far more than just a one-dimensional dunk champion with another 20-plus point game. And as usual, it wasn’t enough.
Just two days before suffering that morale-killing loss to the Warriors, new head coach Tom Thibodeau sounded almost punch-drunk while speaking to the media following Minnesota’s 27-point, home loss to the Detroit Pistons.
”I’m going to keep coming,” said Thibodeau via ESPN. ”I don’t go away. I’m going to look at everything, re-examine. Something’s being missed. It’s got to change.”
While Thibodeau didn’t have an answer then, you don’t need the basketball IQ of Jerry West to identify the issues that continue to plague this young team. Until holding Chicago to 94 points on Tuesday, Minnesota had allowed nine straight opponents to surpass the century mark and currently rank 22nd in points allowed [106.7] and 29th in opponents field goal percentage.
Now in his fifth season with Minnesota, 26-year old Ricky Rubio isn’t the oldest player on the roster, and he isn’t even the longest-tenured Timberwolf. But with the most experience in both the NBA and on the international stage, he’s become Minnesota’s resident veteran presence and didn’t hesitate to voice his concerns about a team that’s in desperate need of a few more veterans following last week’s loss to the Pistons.
”We can accept making mistakes and [when we] don’t make shots,” said Rubio via ESPN. ”Playing with no heart, no desire, it’s just awful. Right now, it’s just bad. And it seems like we didn’t care.”
Down by 21 points in the second quarter of Tuesday’s Windy City win, the Timberwolves finally showed the heart that they’ve been missing and held an opponent to less than 100 points for the first time since limiting the Phoenix Suns to 85 points on November 25th. But while the victory stopped the bleeding and gave us another glimpse of just how good Minnesota could be, Thibodeau’s Timberwolves still have a long way to go before becoming the dangerous young team with one of basketball’s brightest futures that so many were expecting to see this season.