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Why Can’t The Timberwolves Finish Games?

At a bare minimum, with two-time defending dunk contest champ Zach LaVine and back-to-back Rookie of the Year award winners Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the Minnesota Timberwolves figured to be one of the NBA’s more entertaining teams this season.

The team, which won 29 games during the 2015 campaign, is incredibly young, and added Kris Dunn, a dazzling standout point guard from Providence, in the first round of this year’s draft. Between the copious amount of talent already on board and the assumed in-house growth under new coach Tom Thibodeau, things were looking up for Minnesota.

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So how and why are the Wolves — who own a 5-12 record that’s on pace to be even worse than last season’s — struggling so mightily to take the next step?

Depending on when you tune into a Timberwolves game, you might come away thinking they’re one of the NBA’s best teams. Minnesota has dominated first and second quarters, beating opponents by 13.7 and 13.5 points per 100 plays in those periods, respectively — a margin that, if they kept it up all game, would outpace Golden State for best in the league. As it stands, the Wolves own the NBA’s third-best net rating (the sum of offensive and defensive performance per 100 possessions) in first halves, and boast the NBA’s most efficient first-half offense.

But for the most part, that’s where the fun ends. The Timberwolves have been apocalyptically awful in third quarters, so bad that simply saying they rank worst in the NBA this season during that period doesn’t do it justice. Instead, consider this: Minnesota’s -30.6 deficit per 100 plays in third quarters would easily rank as the worst period any NBA team has had — first, second, third or fourth — since the league began tracking net rating 20 years ago.

SEASON TEAM NET RATING QUARTER
2016-17 Timberwolves -30.6 3Q
2016-17 Nets -29.9 3Q
2011-12 Bobcats -19.6 1Q
2015-16 Lakers -19.3 1Q
1999-2000 Bulls -19.3 3Q
1997-98 Nuggets -19.2 3Q
1999-2000 Bulls -19.0 1Q
2002-03 Cavaliers -18.1 1Q
2011-12 Cavaliers -16.9 2Q
2010-11 Timberwolves -16.9 2Q
Worst net rating in an indvidual quarter, last 20 years

Source: NBA.com

No team during the past 20 years has even been outscored by 20 points per 100 possessions in a single period over a full season, though this season’s Nets are keeping pace with the Timberwolves’ spectacular grossness. The next-closest club would be the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, who got manhandled by 19.6 points per 100 plays in first quarters en route to posting the worst win percentage in history.

There isn’t a totally clear explanation as to why the Wolves suddenly forget how to play basketball immediately after halftime. But there are a handful of constants that have shown up during Minnesota’s Jekyll-and-Hyde acts.

The team begins games by playing an inside-out style, but changes to a more perimeter-oriented style in third quarters when Wiggins takes over a greater share of the offense, settling for more jumpers and getting to the line less often than he does to start contests. (It’s no coincidence, then, that Towns’s usage craters during third periods as Wiggins’s increases.)

If you watched last year’s Sam Mitchell-coached Wolves team, which ranked near the bottom in three-point attempts, you may not mind that this club is taking 44 percent more triples per game than it did last year. Nonetheless, the abrupt shift appears to be having some unintended consequences.

Aside from perhaps failing to develop the rhythm necessary to sink those shots after a break, there’s also the fact that Minnesota is failing to corral its misses — a key to their offense, as they rank second in the NBA in second-chance points during first halves.

This might not be crippling if it came with a shift in strategy — some of the league’s best teams forgo offensive rebounding entirely, in favor of getting back on defense — but that hasn’t been the case. Crashing the offensive boards just as aggressively while playing perimeter ball but not coming up with the rebound has left the Timberwolves allowing more fastbreak points than anyone during third periods, a considerable dropoff from the first half, when they rank 10th-best at limiting run-outs.

Some might look at Thibodeau’s decision to ride his young horses in the early going — Wiggins, Towns and LaVine are all 21 years old and each ranks among the league’s top 12 in first-half minutes per game. Others might suggest that Thibodeau is one of the NBA’s best game planners, and that his teams get out of the gate well as a result, but that he’s slow to adjust over the course of a contest.

There’s also an argument to be made that Minnesota, the youngest team in the NBA, doesn’t know how to pace itself, or how to put its foot on an opponent’s throat just yet. It’s not all that uncommon for young teams to play two or three good quarters, then fail to finish against a more experienced unit. After a recent meltdown, Wiggins told reporters he believes the Wolves relax and “get too cool” after building sizable leads that later evaporate.

SHOOTING PERCENTAGE
PLAYER FIRST HALF THIRD QUARTER
Andrew Wiggins 47.4% 30.6%
Zach LaVine 50.4 50.0
Karl-Anthony Towns 53.3 40.0
Gorgui Dieng 64.0 38.1
Ricky Rubio 36.6 38.9
Kris Dunn 44.1 29.4
Nemanja Bjelica 48.7 18.8
Shabazz Muhammad 41.4 28.6
Cole Aldrich 52.6 50.0
Tyus Jones 38.5 0.0
Timberwolves’ third-quarter shooting struggles

For 2016 season

Source: NBA.com

In any case, the team’s biggest concern — aside from the horrific third quarters, which figure to balance out at some point — has to be defense so far, especially given Thibodeau’s expertise in that area. (Of the last 12 teams Thibodeau has worked with as a head coach or an assistant, 11 finished in the top 10 defensively. The one club that didn’t, the 2014-15 Bulls, finished 11th.)

The Wolves are generally an active bunch on that end of the floor and deflect more passes than any team aside from the Golden State Warriors. Yet even with the slight improvements they’ve made since Thibodeau was hired, they’re still poor at protecting the rim.

Gorgui Dieng, a big man with a solid outside jumper who starts alongside Towns, has struggled defensively this year, leaving too much space for pick-and-roll ballhandlers to navigate. As such, a guard like Eric Bledsoe can use the cushion to blow past him and get to the rim, while a team like Golden State, with an abundance of shooters, can capitalize on Dieng’s choice to hang back by pulling up for a jumper before he contests. Teams are shooting nearly 69 percent from inside 3 feet with Dieng and Towns on the floor, and 43.6 percent from midrange against them, per NBA Wowy — not terrible, but far worse than what was expected from two talented young bigs playing for Thibodeau.

Still, even as Thibodeau struggles to find the answer to the team’s second-half struggles, there is a silver lining: Almost no team can continue to perform this poorly this specifically, especially not one that essentially has the statistical profile of a .500 team.

It’s hard to imagine that Minnesota will continue to shoot worse at the rim in third quarters than DeAndre Jordan shoots from the line, for instance. And it’s unlikely that nine of the team’s top-10 rotation players will continue to shoot worse from the field in the third period than they do during the first half. (Ricky Rubio, the lone player to have a better field-goal percentage in the third, is shooting just 38.9 percent in third periods — up from a dismal 36.6 percent in first halves.)

At 1-6, the Wolves have the NBA’s worst record in clutch scenarios, when the score is within five points during the final five minutes of play. Much of that is of their own doing, as they’ve allowed the league’s highest shooting percentage and three-point percentage in such moments. They’ve also lost four separate games in which they once held a 15-point lead or more.

But in order to take leads that big in the first place, Minnesota had to be doing something right. The key to the Wolves’ season figures to rely on whether they can sustain their impressive efforts after halftime.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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