A strong first half performance by the Minnesota Timberwolves earned them a 61-55 advantage going into the half against the Denver Nuggets on November 3rd.
After the buzzer signaling the end of the third quarter, they were down 13.
The miserable third quarter wasn’t an anomaly. In their most recent loss before that game, the Wolves blew an 11-point halftime lead against the Sacramento Kings by being outscored 31-12.
It’s been the story of their season thus far. Eliminate the third quarter from every game this season and the Timberwolves would be 4-1 instead of 1-4.
On average, the Timberwolves beat their opponents in every quarter except for the third, where they’re outscored 28.8 to 19.2 per game after five games. In losses, the deficit is 61-121. Per NBA.com/stats, no team has been outscored in any particular quarter as the Timberwolves have in the third.
In these third quarters, the Wolves are shooting 36.4 percent from the field. They’ve turned the ball over 28 times, compared to only 18 assists.
The team has demonstrated playoff-caliber ability in first halves while giving away games in the third period. It’s early in the season, but the games lost due to these third quarters could very well come back to haunt them.
What’s the problem? What is it about those third quarters that have been such a nightmare so far for the young team?
The short answer would be everything. They’ve fallen apart across the board: offense, defense, shot selection, turnovers. Every aspect of basketball seems to go down the drain during the third quarter. Last season, four games separated the fifth seed Trail Blazers from the lottery-bound Utah Jazz. For a team that was expected to be a fringe playoff team, every squandered game means something. For a team hoping to make the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04, there’s not much margin for error.
Looking at the Wolves’ third quarter splits is like watching Skip Bayless: It’s so bad, it doesn’t make sense, yet it’s real. When Karl-Anthony Towns is playing 10.8 minutes per third quarter, it’s almost inconceivable that his team gets outscored by such a margin. He is -10.2 in third quarters, the same plus/minus that fellow starters Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine have.
The issue doesn’t seem to be due to Kris Dunn replacing Ricky Rubio as starting point guard after Rubio’s elbow injury sidelined him. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that either point guard has played well.
Rubio was a team-worst -12.5 in his two third quarters before the injury. Dunn’s at -6.6 in the third quarter, shooting just 22.2 percent in 33 minutes of third quarter action. It also isn’t an issue of replacing the replacer, as the third-string point guard Tyus Jones is a team-high +10 in his nine minutes played in third quarters.
One reason they’ve struggled is the play of Towns in the third. Like the rest of the Wolves roster, his numbers fall off a cliff during the third quarter. On top of lower efficiency numbers, the Wolves tend to go away from their franchise player in the third.
Despite playing 10.8 minutes per third quarter, Towns has averaged only 2.8 shots in the third quarter. He plays almost the entire first and third quarters, resting for the beginning of the second and fourth quarter. He averages the same minutes in the first quarter as in the first.
Yet, Towns has a usage rate of 30.2 in first quarters, but it drops down to 19.4 in the third quarters.
The gameplan seems to be to get Towns involved early, which is a great strategy considering he’s their franchise cornerstone. For whatever reason, that plan seems to go down the drain during the third quarter. The results unsurprisingly tell us that their offense is better when their best player gets more shots.
Many of the Wolves’ problems are self-inflicted and will go away. Losing a game manager like Rubio certainly doesn’t help, but the Wolves can survive without him for a brief period.
The turnovers, the lack of offensive flow, and defensive breakdowns will likely move towards league-average. Having a new coach, a rookie point guard, and an extremely young roster make them prone to lapses like the Wolves have had in the third quarters.
Most of these problems will solve themselves over time. The Wolves could have much success this season, but it will not be without growing pains. This is a team that’s learning how to win, and their earliest test will be overcoming these third quarter woes.
The first thing the Wolves must do to rid themselves of these game-killing quarters is to stick with the gameplan and keep Towns involved in the offense. Other than that, the Wolves just need to stick with what seems to be working in the other three quarters and play with confidence.
There’s no real reasons to suspect that this specific issue will remain a crippling issue throughout the season, but the difference on whether or not they snap their playoff drought this season may be determined by how quickly they can put their third quarter problems behind them.