The Timberwolves couldn't hold leads last season. Here's how Tom Thibodeau tried to fix that.
MINNEAPOLIS — Twenty-two times last season, the Timberwolves possessed a double-digit lead only to lose the game. It was an epidemic, and a costly one. Flip those 22 games from losses to wins, and Minnesota makes the playoffs.
So coach Tom Thibodeau went to work in the offseason looking to diagnose the issues that prevented the Wolves from closing games out.
The Timberwolves blew leads in a variety of ways. They "ran the whole gamut" as Thibodeau put it, making costly errors in late-game situations, blowing big leads early and watching big leads dissipate in the fourth quarter.
Thibodeau did find a few common denominators, however.
"I went through those games and kept coming back to the toughness, playing smart down the stretch and being competitive," Thibodeau said.
Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, but none of those issues qualify as easy fixes. So Thibodeau did his best to address them with the roster moves.
"And we felt by adding the guys we did, that'll help," he said.
Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler are all competitive, which is a big reason why they've all won so often throughout their careers.
Playing smart down the stretch is something that can be linked to experience. There's a certain way to close games out, and last year's young Timberwolves roster clearly didn't know what it was.
As Crawford laid out the formula this week, he said teams "can't play not to lose" late.
"You have to do what you did to kind of get the lead," he said. "I think, sometimes, you have a tendency to kind of get cautious and kind of slow things up, and other teams feel that. They're like, 'Ah, they're nervous.'"
There was no team that fit that bill better than Minnesota last season. The Wolves often looked like they were waiting for the first bad thing to occur, then the avalanche began and the opposing team's comeback was on. Minnesota compounded bad shots with turnovers, and before you knew it, the Wolves, who often had led all game, were trailing when it mattered most.
"You don't want to take bad shots or anything," Crawford said, "but you want to stay aggressive."
Then there's the toughness, which again all of this summer's veteran additions bring in some facet, none more so than Butler. His career has been defined by his toughness and the edge he brings to the floor, particularly when it matters most.
Butler averaged 4.3 points a game last year in the final five minutes of games where the margin was five points or less, the third-best mark in the league behind only Russell Westbrook and Isaiah Thomas. The Timberwolves' new All-NBA wing is widely considered to be one of the elite closers on both ends of the floor.
"When you look at clutch shooting, he's always at the top," Thibodeau said. "He has the ability to draw fouls, he's a great free-throw shooter, he can guard everyone on the floor and he's smart."
Of course, Thibodeau would probably prefer games not come down to the wire after Minnesota builds a big lead early. Maintaining those large advantages often stems from one thing: defense. The Timberwolves weren't very good in that department last season, finishing in a tie for 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing 109.1 points per 100 possessions.
If that gets better, maybe fourth quarters won't have to be so tense for Timberwolves fans.
"With a lot of teams, if you have a good defense and you get up 10-12 points, it's hard to come back against certain teams because you know their defense is so strong," Thibodeau said. "But if your defense isn't like that, then you're going to be susceptible to giving up leads. You're going to hit stretches where you don't shoot the ball great, so if you don't shoot it great you've got to be able to win games different ways. Your defense and your rebounding should put you in position to win every night as long as you're taking care of the ball."
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