The Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Miami Heat on Friday night in a game where the Wolves’ role players showed what this team is capable of. Although Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards both had great nights on the floor, they weren’t the headlining act against the Jimmy Butler-led Heat. The Minnesota bench had 52 bench points and 23 second-chance points.
“They brought the energy. They brought all of the little things that make you win a game,” Ricky Rubio said of the second unit. “I think rebounding, the effort, defense… has to be there every night. We’ve been super inconsistent with that, and having them lifting us from the bench and playing as good as they helped us to really be in the game and win it.”
Rubio, who had 17 points, four assists and two steals, referred specifically to a trio of players when discussing the bench’s play against the Heat. Naz Reid, Juancho Hernangomez and Jarred Vanderbilt combined for 39 points and 27 rebounds, 10 of which were on the offensive end.
The Timberwolves are 4-6 in their last 10 games and show some signs of chemistry and hustle. They have averaged 9.4 steals per game over the last 10 games, which would put them atop the league if averaged throughout the whole season. They rank top 10 in the league in points created off turnovers and second-chance points — two categories that involve a lot of hustle. The challenge now transitions to harnessing that energy and focusing on the floor’s defensive side consistently.
“What really matters is that we keep stacking these types of performances on top of each other,” head coach Chris Finch said after Friday’s home victory. “We’ve been here before. And now we go on the road, and we play really tough teams, some of the top teams in the West that we’re playing coming up. We need to have this type of performance against those types of teams, and then that would be a sign of real growth for us. It was probably our best team effort of the season.”
When it comes to the Wolves’ final 15 games of the season, one thing to really pay attention to is their hustle and attentiveness on the defensive side of the floor. If they ever want to develop a sustainable winning formula, they will have to be at least a mediocre defensive squad. In Phil Ford’s most recent article, he highlights why Minnesota’s defense hasn’t seen improvement and that poor defense has been a staple throughout their franchise history.
It’s worth paying attention to how Finch handles the rotation down the stretch heading into the ever-so-anticipated draft lottery. Minnesota’s new head coach and his staff need to see what they have with certain players on the team. With Malik Beasley out again, some players will be asked to play a bigger role because of the available minutes. Who will consistently shine if given a larger spotlight?
Vanderbilt, 21, has made his presence known recently. The 6’9” former Kentucky Wildcat really provided meaningful energy against Miami and seemed to be the difference-maker throughout the game. Whether it was giving Butler fits on the defensive end or hauling in 14 rebounds, the Wolves are in desperate need of a player who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. After the game, Finch even went as far as saying that Vanderbilt “proved to us” that he deserves to be back in the rotation.
“My mindset going into the game was to just bring some energy to the team and up to our level of physicality,” said Vanderbilt. “I felt like our level of competitiveness wasn’t there to begin the game, so my job was to go in there and fight, be physical, and just try to bring energy and a spark.”
It will also be nice to see what this team looks like with Towns and D’Angelo Russell sharing the floor consistently (knock on wood) and which players on the current roster best complement them.
Another positive is that the Wolves can experiment with different rotations throughout the next month to see who can bring that energy and effort on a nightly basis. Offensive firepower is not the issue for Minnesota. Their challenge will be putting the right pieces in place next to the household names in order to win consistently.
Defense is the most prominent way they can start to string a few wins together. Towns even mentioned that he liked the team’s “grittiness” in the victory against the Heat. If the whole roster can stay healthy over the last stretch of games and continue to bring intensity on both ends of the court, we will finally be able to get a small sample of what this team’s potential is over the new few seasons.