Kevin Love, Channing Frye

Extra Pass: Minnesota Timberwolves and defining clutch

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The Minnesota Timberwolves just can’t win close games.

Trailing the Phoenix Suns by eight points in the fourth quarter Tuesday night, Minnesota exploded for a  24-6 run in a 110-101 win.

Yet, the Timberwolves remain 1-12 in games decided by four or fewer points – by far the worst mark in the NBA. If only they hadn’t played so well down the stretch, they could have improved that record Tuesday.

Instead, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Corey Brewer and Shabazz Muhammad (yes, really) dismantled the Suns so thoroughly, the game – which was separated by a single point as late as 2:19 remaining – no longer qualified as close.

It’s extremely difficult to discern which players are actually clutch, and it’d be easy to point to Minnesota’s 1-12 record in close games and say this group of players isn’t. And maybe they aren’t.

But they sure looked to be Tuesday. Rubio controlled the tempo. Love showed his versatile inside-outside game. Muhammad hit the glass and ran the floor hard. Brewer made strong cuts to put himself in scoring position. They just played really well until Phoenix was extinguished.

Then again, maybe they just ran into a team that’s as un-clutch as they are. The Suns are 4-8 in games decided by four or fewer. (Still, it’s not as if Tuesday’s contest counted.)

If you want to judge Phoenix and Minnesota by their records in such games, though, you also must judge every team that way. Sure, you’ll have no issue ranking the San Antonio Spurs (9-1) the NBA’s most clutch team, but are you really ready to ride with the second-place Philadelphia 76ers (8-2)?

All season, the Timberwolves have excelled in point difference – historically a strong indicator of a team’s true ability – and struggled in the standings. It’s a result of dropping so many close games but winning most of their lopsided contests.

Their latest “non-clutch” win makes their record 28-29 and puts them 5.5 games back from the eight-place Suns. At this point in the season, Minnesota’s playoff hopes are extremely faint. Even if the rest of the season goes as point difference suggest it should – with the Timberwolves playing the seventh-best team in the Western Conference – they’ve likely already dug themselves into too deep a hole.

Announcement: Pro Basketball Talk’s partner FanDuel is hosting a one-day $120,000 Fantasy Basketball league for Wednesday night’s games. It’s $25 to join and first prize is $13,000. Starts at 7pm ET on Wednesday. Here’s the FanDuel link.

Tuesday’s result will delay it by a day, but when Minnesota is eventually eliminated from playoff contention, poor clutch play will surely be blamed. But was that really the case, or did the Timberwolves just randomly fail in a small sample of close games?

Understanding the clutch is extremely difficult, and I don’t think we’re near the point of doing it. If you watched Tuesday’s game, you know the Timberwolves were clutch. But when you examine comprehensive clutch stats for the season, it won’t show up.

Before we declare which teams are and aren’t clutch, we need a better measuring stick.

Aaron Gordon both legs over the mascot, ball-under-the-legs dunk (VIDEO)

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TORONTO — Zach LaVine won the NBA All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest, but in an epic night for my money this was the single best dunk.

Orlando’s Aaron Gordon broke ground with this one — guys have jumped over mascots and other players before (and a Kia hood), but by splitting their legs apart. Gordon just put both legs over Stuff (that’s the mascot’s name, Stuff the Magic Dragon, I don’t make this up) — and took the ball off the mascot’s head, went under his legs, and threw it down.

Insane.

Gordon deserved a trophy for his performance in this dunk contest.

Zach LaVine edges Aaron Gordon in epic, insane Dunk Contest

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TORONTO — That. Was. Amazing.

In a dunk contest that will go down with the all-time greats — Jordan vs. Dominique, Dr. J from the free throw line — Minnesota’s Zach LaVine defended his dunk contest title. Barely. Because Orlando’s Aaron Gordon was doing dunks nobody had ever seen before.

And LaVine was bringing it just as hard.

The two men advanced to the finals — dismissing Will Barton and Andre Drummond, each of whom had good dunks — and that was when it got wild.

There were four second-round dunks, and four perfect scores of 50. (That was in spite of Shaq, who wanted to give nines for second attempts.)

“I was prepared for four (second round dunks),” LaVine said. “To tell the truth, he came with something that no one else has done. He did two dunks that were just crazy with the mascots, jumping over them. We just kept pushing each other until the last dunk. I’ve got to give it up to my boy Will “The Thrill” Barton. It’s because of him I think I won. Because he said try to go from the free-throw line. I’d never done that before, and I just tried it. So I guess it was a great dunk. I think it was the best one ever.”

The Air Canada Centre crowd was exploding with every dunk. The two men went to a dunk-off — and got two more 50s.

“If I knew it was going to be like that, I would have prepared better and we would have been here dunking all night, going back 50 after 50 after 50 after 50,” Gordon said. “We would have been here all night. I didn’t know it was going to be like that. I was just hoping Zach was going to miss, and it wasn’t going to happen. You could see as my facial expressions when Zach dunks it, it’s like okay, that’s a 50. Like I know we’re going to have to dunk again.”

So they went to a second-round of overtime, where LaVine put up another 50 and won the contest.

Gordon was close to perfect.

Zach LaVine can flat-out fly.

Magic’s Aaron Gordon with the over-the-mascot mad dunk

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TORONTO — Aaron Gordon was giving Zach LaVine all he could handle in the Dunk Contest.

He blew the lid off the Air Canada Centre with this dunk in the first round — and it wasn’t even his best dunk of the night. Never seen this before.

This dunk contest was awesome, so much more video to come.

Zach LaVine opens Slam Dunk Contest title defense with spectacular behind-the-back slam (VIDEO)

during the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge 2016 at Air Canada Centre on February 12, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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TORONTO — Zach LaVine clearly heard all the talk that Aaron Gordon or Will Barton had a chance to upset him in the Slam Dunk Contest. He came out ready to prove his superiority right off the bat. This behind-the-back slam was his first attempt of the night:

Even better was the reaction, both from Andre Drummond and from LaVine’s Minnesota teammates: