The Minnesota Timberwolves‘ winning streak in January was simply spectacular. A combination of improved defense, good bench production, and fourth quarter stamina led to one of the team’s best five-game stretches since the Kevin Garnett era.
Not only did they go undefeated, but the T-Wolves beat their opponents by an average of 17.8 points. This stat is made more impressive by the fact that Minnesota is not just rolling over lottery-bound teams. During the last five games, they have beaten their Western Conference rivals in the San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans Pelicans, and Oklahoma City Thunder, as well as the perennial title-contending Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Timberwolves’ winning streak pushed their record to 29-16 before Tuesday’s loss in Orlando, placing Minnesota fourth in the West. If they can hang onto this position, it would be the Wolves’ second-best regular season finish in franchise history.
Five Takeaways From the Timberwolves’ Winning Streak
1. Taj Gibson is really, really good
At 32 years of age, no one expected Taj Gibson to have a career year this season. But something seems to have clicked in Minnesota, and here he is, playing the best basketball of his nine-year career.
Though his average of 12 points per game doesn’t sound like a lot, it is impressive considering his efficiency. In both two-point percentage and field goal percentage, he ranks sixth in the entire NBA at 59.9 percent and 57.4 percent respectively. He is also 14th in the league in effective field goal percentage, shooting 58.3 percent. To top it all off, Gibson is shooting career-best percentages on free throws and three-pointers as well.
Scoring isn’t the only area in which Gibson is excelling. He is grabbing a career best 7.7 rebounds per game. In total this season he has 348 rebounds, which is good for 16th in the NBA.
His specialty, however, is offensive rebounding. Gibson currently has the ninth most in the NBA, and averages about three per game. His proficiency in this area is a big part of the reason the Timberwolves are currently seventh in offensive rebounds per game and fifth in offensive rebound percentage.
This combination of scoring efficiency and offensive rebounding ability has earned Gibson a offensive rating of 123.7. His is the best on the Timberwolves and eighth in the league, putting hi above the likes of James Harden and LeBron James.
2. Tyus Jones is a solid point guard
This summer, many across the league questioned Tom Thibodeau‘s decision not to sign a new backup point guard. If the Timberwolves were serious about contending, it didn’t seem like Tyus Jones would be good enough to lead their bench unit against upper echelon teams like the Spurs or Cavaliers.
But this year, particularly in the last few games, Jones has proved that he deserves a place in the Timberwolves’ future.
During the seven games in which Jeff Teague was out with a sprained MCL, Jones started and led the Timberwolves to four wins, including their 28-point blowout over the Cavaliers. During this time, he averaged seven points, four assists, and two steals.
A constant concern with Jones is his lack of defensive ability. His small stature and lack of athletic ability make it difficult for him to guard elite point guards. However, he is learning to compensate for his weaknesses and is actually leading the league in deflections per 36 minutes, averaging 5.9.
It’s also worth noting that Jones is becoming a stellar playmaker. He’s sixth in the league in assist to turnover ratio and eighth in assist ratio for players who play ten or more minutes per game. His great court vision and basketball IQ enable him to set up his teammates for shots while avoiding turnovers.
But most importantly, he dunked on LeBron James.
3. Nemanja Bjelica fills a critical role
After missing 15 games with a foot sprain, Nemanja Bjelica has played the last 13 games. Excluding the most recent game, in which he was ejected after just four minutes of play, the Timberwolves have won nine of 12 games since his return. That means that they are winning 75 percent of their games, which, if maintained, would put them just behind the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors for third in the entire NBA.
It’s not a coincidence that the Timberwolves are winning now that Bjelica is back. He makes the team better by addressing two of the team’s biggest weaknesses: three-point shooting and bench scoring.
The Timberwolves are 29th in the league in three-pointers made per game and 24th in three-point percentage. In an era when three-pointers are vital to winning championships, this is a huge issue. But during the Timberwolves’ winning streak, Bjelica made a three per game on 50 percent shooting, which is a critical difference for a team that so desperately needs long-range shooters.
This year, Bjelica has improved not only his three-point shooting, but also his ability to finish around the rim. Bjelica’s scoring provides much-needed spacing in the Timberwolves’ offensively challenged bench unit. Normally, the team is 27th in the league in bench scoring with just 25.7 points per game. During their five-game winning streak, however, the bench scored 31 points per game.
4. Andrew Wiggins is no longer a liability on defense
There’s no question that the Timberwolves are defensively challenged. And there’s no question that Andrew Wiggins was not helping the issue in his first two years of play.
He is obviously capable of playing good defense. Everyone has witnessed Wiggins’ incredible athleticism, and he has shown time and time again that he is a hard worker. And this year, he seems to be putting the pieces together. Although he is still not a stellar defender, at least he is no longer a liability.
This year, Wiggins has career bests in defensive rating, defensive win shares, and defensive box plus-minus. In the 46 games that he has played this season, he has just one less steal than he had the entire season last year.
In the last five games, Wiggins seemed to turn his improvement up a notch. Against the Pelicans, he had three blocks, and in OKC, Wiggins held Paul George to just 13 points. George, an All-Star forward, has been limited to 13 or fewer points just eight other times this season.
Even Thibodeau, usually so conservative in his praise, is readily complimenting Wiggins’ improvement. Per Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune, Thibodeau said, “He’s such a gifted scorer. That part is obvious. But it’s all the other things he’s capable of doing…There’s defense, rebounding the ball, getting out on the break, making plays for other people.”
5. The Target Center can get loud
This isn’t related to the Timberwolves’ basketball skills per se, but it has got to be easier to play well when the crowd is cheering rather than being silent, or even booing. For many years, the fans at Target Center have been known for being quiet, except for the gasps of dismay whenever Ricky Rubio took a jump shot.
However, over the past few months, Timberwolves fans have begun to cheer during games. Recently, free throws from Jimmy Butler have elicited chants of “MVP!” from the crowd. This kind of fan support has been largely absent from the Target Center since the team’s success behind Kevin Garnett.
But these fourth quarter chants and sporadic cheers came nowhere close to the amount noise on Jan. 14. The fans were in a state of euphoria after the Minnesota Vikings’ dramatic playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints. As the Timberwolves set to work demolishing the Portland Trail Blazers, the chant of “Skol,” began to echo through the Target Center, and each Timberwolves’ bucket was accompanied by a roar from the crowd.
While the Timberwolves undoubtedly still have ways to go before they are ready to make a serious run at a title, the observations from this winning streak are largely positive. Their players are working harder on defense, the bench is producing more offense, and even the fans are doing their part to cheer the team on. There’s still a long road to go, but it seems at least now the Timberwolves are on the right track.
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