Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

Tom Thibodeau still hasn’t fixed Timberwolves defense

15 Comments

DETROIT – Taj Gibson is experiencing déjà vu – to a point.

Gibson played for the Bulls in 2010 when they hired Tom Thibodeau, who exhaustively drilled his trademark defense with his players. Now with the Timberwolves – who hired Thibodeau as president/coach last year – Gibson said Thibodeau is scheming and teaching his defense similarly.

But the results have been radically different.

Chicago ranked No. 1 in points allowed per possession Thibodeau’s first season then second, sixth and second before slipping to a still-above-average 11th his final year. Minnesota ranked 27th last season and is not only dead last this season, but is allowing the most points per possession of all time by a wide margin.

“The only thing about Chicago, we just did what he told us to do – every game,” said Gibson, whom the Timberwolves signed last summer to provide defense and toughness. “If he said A to Z, we did A to Z every single game. And in practice, we did A to Z.

“That’s the only thing we’re trying to work out here now, have us work on things from A to Z. And sometimes you don’t want to do it, but you’re going to have to do it if you want to be successful in this league.”

Gibson didn’t pinpoint why the Timberwolves didn’t follow Thibodeau’s game plans as well as the Bulls did. Minnesota’s roster is less experienced and maybe lacking the defensive capabilities of Chicago’s. Joakim Noah won Defensive Player of the Year and Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler also made All-Defensive teams for Thibodeau’s Bulls. Gibson and Omer Asik were no slouches on that end, either. The only Timberwolves with notable defensive accomplishments are… Butler and Gibson.

And Thibodeau.

Thibodeau was expected to immediately overhaul the Timberwolves – install an impenetrable defense and lift them into playoff contention. He was an overnight success in Chicago, winning Coach of the Year and guiding the Bulls to 62 wins and the conference finals his fist season. Why couldn’t he duplicate that speedy ascension in Minnesota?

His first year there was bumpy, to say the least. The Timberwolves went 31-51 and finished 27th in points allowed per possession.

The common reaction: Pundits, in hindsight, probably overrated Thibodeau’s ability to instantly transform a moribund franchise. The failure to meet expectations was seen as a failure of those setting the expectations, not Thibodeau. Give him another year, and everything would turn out alright – especially once he acquired Butler.

Yet… everything is not alright. Not even close.

Minnesota (2-3) is allowing 114.0 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. No other team is close:

image

Five games are a small sample, but it’s not as if the Timberwolves have faced a murders’ row of offenses. They’ve played the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs, Jazz, still-figuring-it-out Thunder, Pacers and Pacers.

“We’ve got to be better,” Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “It’s only five games in. We have a lot more time. But we don’t have that much time. It’s too damn much. We’ve got to be better.”

The Timberwolves were missing Butler (illness) for their worst two defensive performances of the season, Indiana and Detroit. When he returns, that will patch some problems. Not only is he the Timberwolves’ best defender, the strong wing unlocks small-ball lineups that allow Minnesota to handle more matchups.

At power forward, the 32-year-old Gibson sometimes looks too slow to handle smaller stretch fours. Butler was a masterful addition, but with a two-year, $28 million contract, Gibson is an expensive band-aid. Despite Gibson’s deficiencies, Thibodeau wanted the big’s reliability.

The real problem: Thibodeau can’t find that elsewhere – especially his franchise cornerstone younger players, Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

Towns is a mobile 7-footer with ideal physical tools and improving defensive effort. Yet, his awareness lags far behind, as this play clipped by Dane Moore of Zone Coverage illustrates:

Like Towns, Wiggins, entered the NBA with high defensive expectations. Rangy and quick, Wiggins looked like he could hawk opposing wings. Instead, he has turned into a score-first player with limited complementary skills. He’s not nearly aggressive enough defensively even to tell whether he gets it.

The Timberwolves are lucky they fleeced the Bulls for Butler, because he covers what would have been major growing pains around Towns and Wiggins (and Zach LaVine, another minus defender). Minnesota has allowed an astounding 134.0 points per 100 possessions when Towns and Wiggins share the court without Butler.

“You need everyone committed to playing defense,” Thibodeau said. “It can’t be left upon one or two guys.

“If one guy is resting or taking it easy, it’s going to make the whole group look bad. I think that we still have to have an understanding of how hard we have to play and how hard we have to close out and challenge shots and get in the fight to rebound and things like that.”

Minnesota has been torched in transition, not getting back quickly enough and losing track of opposing players. The Timberwolves surrender steals only slightly more than average. Sometimes, they crash the offensive glass too hard, but they’re only middling at actually securing offensive rebounds. So, there’s no good excuse for getting beat down court as often as they are.

It hasn’t been much better in the halfcourt, where they’re slow to close out and plagued by miscommunication and poor angles against screens and handoffs.

“We’re better, but making mistakes that we made last year,” Towns said. “So, we’ve got to fix it.”

LeBron James recalls six turnovers with striking precision (video)

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
1 Comment

LeBron James showed off his memory after the Cavaliers’ Game 1 loss to the Celtics, detailing every play of the beginning of the fourth quarter:

He was at it again after Cleveland’s Game 5 loss to the Celtics last night.

Asked about his six turnovers, LeBron perfectly described six turnovers:

The turnover LeBron very noticeably said went off Jeff Green‘s hands was actually assigned to Green. So, that meant LeBron omitted one of his own:

Still, this was incredibly impressive. It was also maybe a little passive-aggressive, the way LeBron notes the ball going off Green’s and J.R. Smith‘s hands.

So, it was quintessential LeBron.

Celtics top Cavaliers in Game 5, setting up Game 7 in Boston?

5 Comments

LeBron James and a couple Cavaliers teammates left the court well before the Celtics dribbled out their 96-83 Game 5 win Wednesday.

The Cavs are already moving on.

Game 6 will be Friday in Cleveland, and the Cavaliers – down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals – must win to avoid elimination. The way Boston has played on the road, it’s even easy to look ahead to Game 7, which is scheduled for Sunday in Boston.

Still, the Celtics bought themselves leeway with their decisive win in Boston tonight. They led by double digits the final 20 minutes, breaking the Cavs’ momentum after two straight wins in Cleveland.

“It’s tough going on the road, playing against somebody else in their house with their crowd,” said Jayson Tatum, who had 24 points, seven rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks tonight. “So, we were just comfortable. We came back home and defended home-court like we have all playoffs.”

Boston is now 10-0 at home this postseason – but just 1-6 away. Fueled in part by that historic split, no game in this series has been close. All five have been decided by at least nine points, and the average margin of victory – 18 – is in the 97th percentile for largest ever in a 3-2 best-of-seven series.

So, just as two big Celtics wins in Games 1 and 2 didn’t deter the Cavaliers, this one likely won’t, either. The Cavs should be heavily favorited in Game 6.

Beyond, if it gets that far? That’s a much bigger tossup.

Teams up 3-2 in a best-of-seven series have won 85% of the time. But Boston is missing a key reason it secured home-court advantage, including a chance to break the 2-2 at home rather than on the road – Kyrie Irving. And LeBron James is downright scary in a Game 7, even on the road.

The Celtics at least took care of business tonight, showing a far greater sense of urgency than Cleveland. Brad Stevens changed his starting lineup, inserting Aron Baynes for Marcus Morris, and tightened his rotation to just seven players until garbage time. Boston ran the floor much harder than the Cavs, decisively outrebounded them and beat them to loose balls. Even in altercations, the Celtics had a man advantage.

LeBron (26 points, 10 rebounds five assists and six turnovers) never made his presence felt in the way usually necessary for the Cavaliers to win. Cleveland’s four other starters combined to score just 24 points, two fewer than LeBron did himself.

After Boston seized control early, the Cavaliers made few adjustments in strategy or effort – as if they’re saving those for later.

LeBron James says we don’t know full story of his upbringing, but he’ll reveal it after retirement

AP Photo/Ron Schwane
6 Comments

LeBron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in high school – as a junior.

He has been in the spotlight ever since, somehow living up to the outsized expectations set while he was a teenager. His story has been told and retold – how he and his mom moved around Akron as she struggled to provide for him, how his athletic ability lifted himself and those around him.

But are we missing key details?

Upon passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most shots made in the playoffs, LeBron reflected on his journey.

LeBron:

To know where I come from, you guys know a little bit of the story. But you guys don’t know the full story about where I come from and the struggle that I had. You guys know about the single-parent struggle, and y’all done heard that story. But there’s a lot more to it, which I’ll talk about when I’m done playing ball.

But to know where I come from, small city 35 miles south of here, and to hear I’m in the same category or talked about and jumping these greats in the playoffs — it’s like I was a kid and I watched the playoffs so much and I was like, I would love to be a part of that, that moment, that atmosphere. I think it’s pretty cool. You hear the scoring, the field goals made, and for a kid that really doesn’t care much about scoring.

Like with LeBron’s secret motivation a couple years ago, I’m totally intrigued. When LeBron decides to share, I’ll be all ears.

Larry Nance Jr., Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier exchange shoves after whistle (video)

5 Comments

Marcus Morris fouled Larry Nance Jr. in Celtics-Cavaliers Game 5 tonight. Nance didn’t like that, got up and shoved Morris. Morris and Terry Rozier didn’t like that, and both shoved Morris.

All three received a technical foul, which seems fair.