Young Timberwolves going through inevitable growing pains

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Minnesota Timberwolves coach Sam Mitchell had to catch himself on more than one occasion during games this season with a youthful team.

When the game was getting tight, one of his young players would make a mistake. Zach LaVine might rush a pump fake on his way to the basket and get called for traveling. Andrew Wiggins might force a shot in traffic. Shabazz Muhammad might lose track of his man on the weak side and get beat for a layup.

Sometimes the hard-nosed interim coach will lose it, letting them have it in frustrated postgame addresses. More often, he tries to take a deep breath and remind himself about the youthful inexperience of his team. The lumps they’re taking now are part of a painful but necessary process.

“I have to rein myself in sometimes,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes I get a little overzealous or excited when we beat Atlanta, beat Chicago, beat some of these teams. I have to remind myself that Andrew Wiggins is 20. Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns, guys we’re leaning on are 20 years old. But I’m pleased that we’re getting better. I think everyone can see that.”

The Timberwolves were one of the surprise teams of the league early in the season after getting off to an 8-8 start that included impressive road wins at Atlanta, Chicago and Miami. The flurry had their long-suffering fans – who haven’t watched their team play in a playoff game since 2004 – hopeful that the longest-running postseason drought in the league was coming to an end.

They have lost eight of 10 games since then, dropping down to 10-16 and 12th place in the muddled Western Conference with home losses to Denver, Portland and Orlando in that stretch. The swoon was expected internally, but has been met with frustration from fans who just want some wins.

“We’re talented enough to get up 15, 18 points on veteran teams that are playoffs teams,” GM Milt Newton said. “So I can understand their frustration, but at the same time I would hope they understand that the group of players on the floor, especially in crunch time, haven’t been there and haven’t done that. They’re learning. They’ll continue to learn. But it will change.”

The Timberwolves, and many executives and coaches around the league, believe the end of those struggles is near. Wiggins and Towns – the last two No. 1 overall picks – look like future stars. LaVine has made huge strides as a combo guard. Add in Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and Ricky Rubio and the Wolves have one of the most promising young cores in the league.

Their top three scorers – Wiggins (21.3 points per game), Towns (15.4) and LaVine (14.8) – have a chance to become the first trio of teammates in league history to average 15 points in a season they started as 19 or 20-year-olds.

Oklahoma City in 2008-09 with Kevin Durant (25.3) and Russell Westbrook (15.3) and the 1996-97 Timberwolves with Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury are the only teams with two players hitting that mark. The Thunder went 23-59 that season and 50-32 the following year.

Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller are helping the younger players work through the adversity.

“Our veterans tell them there are no shortcuts,” Newton said. “You’ve got to take your lumps. Being assured that there is a light at the end of the tunnel by guys that have gone through it and that are champions, you can always hold on to that if you continue to work on your craft and practice hard, compete, there’s going to come a time when you get over that hump.”

There have been concerns to address. They have given up two 17-point leads to Portland at home and an 18-point lead to the Nuggets on the road. Rockets forward Trevor Ariza has attempted more corner 3-pointers – the efficient shot that has overtaken the game in the modern era – than the entire Wolves roster. The defense had gotten so bad recently that Mitchell was forced to return the veteran Prince to the starting lineup for stability.

“At some point they’re going to get it, but they’re not going to get it overnight,” Mitchell said. “If they did, we’d be the first team in history with a bunch of 20-year-olds that would have gotten it before anybody else. I’d like to think I can coach, but I realize I’m not that good. Some things are going to take time.”

And as hard as it is for fans to remain patient, it’s even more difficult for the players.

“We’re fed up with it,” LaVine said. “It’s not like we like losing. We won 16 games last year. It’s really annoying. We’re going out there to win. We just need to learn how to put it together.”

This story has been corrected to show that the 1996-97 Timberwolves also had two players aged 20 or younger to average 15 points.

Russell Westbrook suffers strained quadriceps, out Friday, could miss playoff games

Russell Westbrook injury
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The Houston Rockets are going to be a trendy pick to make a deep in the West playoffs, but that will be hard to envision if Russell Westbrook misses time.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced that an MRI revealed Westbrook has a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He is not playing today (Wednesday) against the Pacers and will be out Friday against the 76ers as well. He will be re-evaluated before the playoff tip-off next week, but his status for those games is unclear.

Westbrook has been just a little off at the restart. He averaged 27.2 points per game during the regular season, but that has been down to 24.3 in the Orlando restart. His 53.6 true shooting percentage for the season (near the league average) fell to 50% in the bubble.

The Rockets have been a strong 4-2 in the bubble with their small-ball system and have held on to the four seed, but they haven’t completely found a rhythm yet (as we saw pre-shutdown. In a likely first-round matchup with Oklahoma City, Houston would need Westbrook and his explosive athleticism.

Without Westbrook expect more of Eric Gordon, who just returned to the rotation Wednesday from injury, plus Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, even maybe Jeff Green — with a switchable roster Mike D’Antoni has a lot of options to soak up those minutes.

He just doesn’t have anyone as good.

Celtics sign coach Brad Stevens to contract extension

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The Celtics shocked by hiring Brad Stevens from Butler in 2013. He was a mid-major college coach, and even big-time college coaches rarely translated to the NBA. In fact, Stevens was viewed as such a college coach, rumors of him returning to that level persisted for years.

But Stevens has turned into a quintessential NBA coach. Despite taking over amid a rebuild, Stevens has won 56% of his games with Boston. It’s difficult to see him anywhere else.

Especially now.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics have signed head coach Brad Stevens to a contract extension, the team announced today.

Stevens, who previously signed a contract extension in 2016, is one of the NBA’s top coaches. He implements crisp schemes on both ends of the floor and communicates roles clearly to his players. At just 43, he could rival some of the longest coaching tenures in NBA history.

There are still questions about Stevens’ ability to coach stars. They might become more pronounced as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascend.

But that’s a first-world NBA problem – having a coach who raises his team’s level and premier talent young players who could lift it even higher.

Another week, still zero players test positive at NBA restart

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It’s starting to sound routine, but it shouldn’t — that the NBA is pulling off an impressive feat keeping COVID-19 outside the bubble (just watch other sports try to come back).

The league announced that 342 players were tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus in the past week and there were zero confirmed positive tests. The league has had no positive tests inside the NBA bubble since it started.

It’s a testament to the tone Commissioner Adam Silver set (working with Chris Paul and the players’ union) setting a tone of patience and — to use a coaching cliche — not skipping steps.

The NBA began testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (that’s where a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again.

The idea was simple — to keep the virus outside of the bubble — but the execution was not. Nor was making sure there was buy-in from the players (and, for the most part, there has been).

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining through the end of the finals, and when family members arrive next month there will be new ways the virus could penetrate the bubble.

It isn’t time for an NBA victory lap yet, but so far so good.

Nate McMillan agrees to contract extension as Pacers coach

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The rumor that Nate McMillan was on the hot seat in Indiana? Turns out, about as accurate as the rumor Nicholas Cage is a time traveler.

McMillan and the Pacers have agreed to a contract extension, the team announced Wednesday (it was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN). McMillan had one year remaining on his current contract. There are no details about the length or compensation. But McMillan isn’t going anywhere.

“What Nate has done in four seasons with our franchise merits this extension,” said President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard. “Between injuries and changes in personnel, he and his coaching staff have adapted and produced positive results. He also represents the franchise, the city and our state in a first-class manner.”

This is the right move by the Pacers, McMillan has been one of the better coaches in the NBA the past couple of seasons (he was fourth in Coach of the Year voting a season ago and will get votes again this season). He has gotten the Pacers to exceed their on-paper talent level a few seasons in a row. Talks to extend McMillan were likely in the works already, but the push to get a longer contract announced now — while the Pacers are still playing at the NBA restart in Orlando — likely was tied to that rumor going public.

The Pacers are the fifth seed in the East and will face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. That Indiana got there without a healthy Victor Oladipo — thanks to strong play from Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis for most of the season, then from T.J. Warren at the NBA restart — is a testament to McMillan’s coaching.

McMillan’s style isn’t flashy or modern — the Pacers are bottom eight in both three-pointers attempted and pace this season — but it works. The Pacers offense has been pretty average this season overall (18th in the league), which is not bad considering the team was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level). The Pacers also have found and developed good young players.

All of that ties back to coaching, which is why McMillan earned this extension.