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.

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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.