Karl-Anthony Towns was invisible on Sunday night, and coach Tom Thibodeau was not afraid to be blunt.
On its face, shy of a win, a 104-101 loss to the Houston Rockets in Game 1 Sunday night looks like the best possible outcome for the Minnesota Timberwolves. They had a chance to tie the game at the end of the fourth quarter, but among the things that could have been a lot better in the game Karl-Anthony Towns stands atop the list.
Towns played a team-high 40 minutes Sunday night, but he had just eight points and nine shot attempts (3-for-9 from the floor, 0-for-2 from 3-point range. As could be expected, his 14.2 percent usage rate ranked seventh on the team and was naturally a considerable drop-off from his regular season usage rate of 22.9 percent.
No less an authority than Charles Barkley called out the Timberwolves’ offensive execution on TNT’s post game show, as the Rockets switched pick-and-rolls and left Towns matched up with a smaller guard regularly. Some of that is on his teammates recognizing it and delivering the ball to him within a certain flow, while there’s also a case for Towns to be more assertive and demand the ball.
Count Tom Thibodeau among those in the latter camp.
"You run the floor,” he said. “Kick the ball out, repost, keep moving around, search it out, get to the offensive board. You’ve got to sprint around. You learn when teams are double-teaming you – that’s what you have to do. You have to make the right play. You also have to get to positions in which it’s difficult for them to double-team. Transition’s a big part of that. You’ve got to run the floor."
Towns accepted accountability for his performance, as he often does practically to a fault.
“I’ve got to be better on both sides of the basketball, “I’ve got to be better all-around if I’m going to help my teammates out as much as possible.”
Towns is Minnesota’s best, most efficient offensive player, and he’s almost unrivaled in the league this season if you look at advanced metrics. And oh by the way, he’s also the team’s best 3-point shooter (42.1 percent during the regular season). There’s no reason for him not be a difference-maker against the Rockets, but he was not the only one who fell short Sunday night.
Apart from taking a long two when a 3 was needed to tie the game in the final seconds, Jimmy Butler had 13 points on 4-for-11 from the floor and could do nothing on the defensive end with James Harden. The latter circumstance is hardly unique, but “Jimmy Buckets” is falling under the radar as a Game 1 failure for the Timberwolves. Clearly, his isolation play at the end of games is not working.
Assertively demanding touches is one thing, but taking the ball away from inefficient players is a coaching adjustment that is too obvious not to happen. Thanks to an extra day off between games, Thibodeau has time to find ways to run some offense through Towns in Game 2.