The Minnesota Timberwolves' late-game performances have been stellar to start the 2017-2018 NBA season.
One of the best marks of good teams is how they perform late in games and how their “Clutch” stats compare to the rest of the league. The NBA defines clutch situations as games that have less than five minutes remaining and the score within five points. The teams with the highest win percentage in these cases last year were the Spurs at 67.4%, the Celtics at 65.3%, the Warriors at 64%, and the Cavaliers at 63.9%. Not surprisingly, these were the final four teams in the playoffs. These statistics show how good teams are at executing down the stretch which is often a good sign of maturity, team chemistry, and coaching.
In these clutch situations last year the Timberwolves had a win percentage of just 33.3% which was 28th in the league and a clear sign of why they drastically underperformed expectations. While going 15-30 in these games is less than ideal, the numbers that went into those results are just as bad. Any stat that you look at for the Timberwolves from last season in these situations ranks near the worst in the league. They had an offensive rating of 97.3 (28th), defensive rating of 111.6 (22nd), effective field goal percentage of 43.3% (26th), free throw percentage of 71.9% (27th), and a free throw attempt rate of .426. These are some of the more glaring categories, but any stat that you look at will appear towards the bottom of the league. They would often blow leads from missing free throws and playing sloppy defense. They would lose games because they wouldn’t be able to execute on offense and make the necessary shots. While it was encouraging that they were close in a lot of games last year, their performances were anything but impressive and a huge reason why they missed the playoffs for the 13th straight year.
Changes this season?
This year the Timberwolves late-game performances have been entirely different. So far they have been the most impressive team in clutch situations posting a 5-1 record, the highest win percentage in the league at 83.3%. During these games their statistical numbers have drastically improved from last year with their offensive rating of 125.2 (5th), effective field goal percentage of 55.2% (9th), free throw percentage of 89.3% (5th), and a free throw attempt rate of .583 (12th). The Timberwolves are not having the issues they did last year late in games as they are executing more efficiently on offense.
The above clip is something that wouldn't happen last year. At first, it seems like a sloppy offensive rebound that just appears to work out for Minnesota, but there is a lot more to it than that. Comming off the miss Wiggins has to start retreating not to allow Westbrook an easy fast break, so he has no chance at the offensive rebound. Butler, however, is a strong rebounding wing who was able to fight for and earn the offensive rebound. This play alone is something that they didn't have last year. As Towns sees Butler get the rebound he moves to the corner. That forces Adams to decide to either follow Towns to the spot or stay and protect the rim. Butler is then able to take one dribble to draw Adams further in and then kicks it to Towns for a wide open three. Plays like these were nonexistent last year as they would often rush the shot off the rebound and force it at the rim.
Free throw shooting a key
One of the biggest differences on offense is their ability to seal games at the line. They are not just hitting their free throws at a higher percentage but also getting to the free throw line at a higher rate. In these clutch situations, they are earning 32.1% of their points from the free throw line which is up from 26.1% last year. The success at the free throw line has a ripple effect on the rest of the game. It forces the opponent to take tougher shots, get in foul trouble, and not be able to run the fast break for easy baskets.
While the team as a whole has been performing at a higher level, the individual numbers have also improved, especially on offense. Their crunch time lineup doesn’t have a player with an offensive rating below 125. Most notably are the performances by Butler and Wiggins as those have been the two that the team tends to lean on. Butler has a usage rate of 29.4, a true shooting percentage of 60.8%, and recording 52.4% of his points from the free throw line. He has been able to provide a calm and reliable approach to these late game situations. The more impressive development has been Andrew Wiggins. He has had a usage rate of 24.6, a true shooting percentage of 68.5%, and been very effective at getting to the rim. His ability to drive has resulted in him scoring 50% of his points in clutch situations in the paint and 29.2% at the free throw line.
The above video is a prime example of Wiggins becoming an elite isolation scorer. After the pick from Towns, Adams decides to continue to help on Wiggins. As Adams over-plays Wiggins on the drive, Wiggins utilizes his exceptional footwork to spin through the double-team and then finish through Anthony's block attempt at the rim.
Last year the Timberwolves were one of the worst teams in the league in clutch situations. The results were less than ideal as they had an extremely disappointing season and extended their playoff drought to 13 years. This year the team made some significant additions and built upon the expectations from the prior year. So far their late-game performances have put them towards the top of the Western Conference. There are still a lot of areas to improve on but this turnaround from last year is a promising sign that the longest playoff drought could be in jeopardy.