March 13, 2018, 3:49 pm
The Wolves are fresh off an exciting victory over the Warriors and hope to harness that play into an extended winning streak. The Wolves haven’t won two games in a row since February 24 and 26, and haven’t won more than two in a row since their five-game streak on January 6 through 14.
A combination of factors have contributed to the inconsistent one-on, one-off play of late. Jimmy Butler’s injury, a tough schedule and poor defensive play are the main reasons. In their last game, the Wolves really turned up the defensive effort versus the Warriors, holding them to just 103 points and 40.7 percent shooting.
The Warriors were without Curry, but the Wolves were without Butler.
It was Karl-Anthony Towns who made the most noise in that game, but the overall team effort on the defensive end was what allowed Towns to take over in the end. Andrew Wiggins held Klay Thompson to 3-of-11 shooting with two turnovers, including just 1-of-7 beyond the arc.
Wiggins also saw time on Durant and held him to just 3-of-8 shooting. In 56 possessions when guarding the two, they only combined for two assists. Not only was Wiggins holding them to 31 percent shooting, he was taking both guys out of the offense completely when on the floor. Neither player was able to create their own shot or create for their teammates thanks to Wigs.
Nemanja Bjelica was also effective when guarding Durant, his primary assignment, holding him to 4-of-13 shooting and 0-of-4 from beyond the arc. In fact, since joining the starting lineup, Bjelica has held his primary defensive assignments to a combined 36 percent, 13-of-36 shooting.
There was some concern about Bjelica being out of position playing the wing, but perhaps he fits in well enough there, at least in small bursts. Offensively he has the skill-set to thrive there.
Taj Gibson has been the Wolves best defender in the paint, and it was on display again versus the Warriors, even holding Durant scoreless when he attacked him off the dribble in pick-and-rolls. Gibson’s weak spot, though, will always be getting out to defenders beyond the arc (allowed 4-of-5 from out there on Sunday).
The offense has hardly missed a beat without Butler. It was always going to be the defense that was the concern and who would be able to step into Butler’s role there. Wiggins certainly has raw ability, but has only shown it in spurts. With Bjelica holding up surprisingly well, and Taj Gibson continuing to thrive, the defense is showing signs of progress and maybe just enough to hold on.
If the Wolves can come out with the same effort going forward, the Wolves should be able to start racking up the wins again, even with more tough games ahead.
The Wizards are currently fifth in the Eastern Conference, sitting just a half game behind the Cavs for the fourth seed and home-court advantage. They have been missing John Wall since late January, but have been able to keep on winning, going 12-7 in his absence.
Wall is still out, but they’ve relied on improved contributions from Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris, Tomas Satoransky and, of course, Bradley Beal. The Wizards are still a dangerous offensive team and have managed to keep pace through Wall’s injury.
It will be another test for the defense, but a good indicator of where they stand. Do they continue on the right path, or revert back to inconsistency?
The Wolves have four games remaining, including this one, on their gauntlet. After that the schedule really lightens up to close out the season. If the Wolves find some defensive consistency and pick up a a bit of steam through the tough games, there’s a chance the Wolves can climb all the way back into the third seed. As of now they sit 1.5 games out of third and 1.5 out of tenth.
Since joining the lineup following Butler’s injury, Bjelica has been contributing across the board. He averaging 13.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks and 2.0 3-pointers on 50 percent shooting overall. He’s been Jimmy Butler-lite, and averaging Jimmy Butler minutes at 37.7 per game.
Beli has shown flashes of his skills in the past, but have never materialized into consistent production. He’s always been a good playmaker and willing passer. He’s always had a smooth jump-shot with range to the 3-point line. His defense was perceived to hold him back, and injuries kept him off the court as well.
As detailed above, though, his defense at the wing has been passable at least, and while an injury put him out of sorts mid-season, he’s recovered and playing excellent basketball right now. The Wolves are 3-4 since Butler’s injury, and Bjelica has been a key in keeping them afloat.
The Wolves need him to stay in there because the alternatives aren’t very pretty.
Beli will face off with Otto Porter Jr., who’s been one of the most efficient players in the NBA the past two seasons. Porter scores all around the court with extreme precision, and has become more of a playmaker this season between Wall’s injury, and the expectations that come with max-contract players.
Porter shifts over to the four as well, with Morris shifting to the five and Kelly Oubre comes in off the bench. It will be a tough test for both Bjelica and Gibson.
Jeff Teague – PG
Andrew Wiggins – SG
Nemanja Bjelica – SF
Taj Gibson – PF
Karl-Anthony Towns – C
Tomas Satoransky – PG
Bradley Beal – SG
Otto Porter Jr. – SF
Markieff Morris – PF
Marcin Gortat – C
Aaron Brooks (personal) – QUESTIONABLE
Jimmy Butler (knee) – OUT
John Wall (knee) – OUT
Where: Capital One Arena, Washington, D.C.
When: 7:00 ET/6:00 CT
How: Fox Sports North and NBA TV