Unfortunately for our Wolves, the beginning of the New Year looked frighteningly like the old. For those who hoped the dreaded third-quarter lapse was left to the year past, the loss to the punchless Portland Trailblazers opening 2017 brought up memories that were certainly not Auld, Lang, or Syne. Nothing forgotten yet here.
Looking to build on some reasonable momentum while starting 2017 fresh, Minnesota was toying with the Lillard-less Blazers in the first half while leading by a dozen. And then halftime hit. And at some point in the visiting locker room, CJ McCollum remembered that he was mildly spurned by the Wolves with the #9 pick in the 2013 draft and decided the time was right for revenge. He poured in 16 in the third quarter to nearly outscore the entire Wolves squad. At the end of those fateful twelve third-quarter minutes, the big lead turned into a five-point deficit for the home squad and they never recovered.
Perhaps less noticeable than McCollum was the subtle defensive shift employed by Terry Stotts in the second half. On successive possessions, Mason Plumlee trapped Karl Anthony Towns in the paint while then moving 30 feet beyond the basket to double Andrew Wiggins. The Blazers hardly trapped relentlessly – just enough to get the Wolves’ attention while disrupting some flow.
"It's a defense that I think excites us. It plays to our strength," Plumlee said. "We have a lot of long, active, quick-footed guys, especially when you look at Chief (Al-Farouq Aminu), Moe (Harkless), Noah (Vonleh). We have a lot of length."
Such defensive wrinkles are hardly the stuff of Red Auerbach or Phil Jackson, but the young Wolves and their head coach just don’t seem to be able to respond consistently to half-time adjustments yet. NBA playoff teams have the ability to impose their will, which can be fluid and changing according to the game circumstances. The Wolves have promise to be sure, but they lack that confident will and are a long ways from the kind of consistency needed to make a run at .500.
But not all hope is lost. The Wolves are certainly performing much better than early in the season. And these guys are fierce competitors. They’ll figure it out. While there is too much of a logjam for them to hope for the playoffs this year without an unforeseen winning streak, a realistic goal would be to go 24-24 in their last 48 to finish with 35 wins on the year. The would get “used” to winning and create some positive momentum into what will be an enormously important 2017-18 season.