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Extra Pass: Minnesota Timberwolves and defining clutch

Feb 26, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT

Kevin Love, Channing Frye

The Minnesota Timberwolves just can’t win close games.

Trailing the Phoenix Suns by eight points in the fourth quarter Tuesday night, Minnesota exploded for a  24-6 run in a 110-101 win.

Yet, the Timberwolves remain 1-12 in games decided by four or fewer points – by far the worst mark in the NBA. If only they hadn’t played so well down the stretch, they could have improved that record Tuesday.

Instead, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Corey Brewer and Shabazz Muhammad (yes, really) dismantled the Suns so thoroughly, the game – which was separated by a single point as late as 2:19 remaining – no longer qualified as close.

It’s extremely difficult to discern which players are actually clutch, and it’d be easy to point to Minnesota’s 1-12 record in close games and say this group of players isn’t. And maybe they aren’t.

But they sure looked to be Tuesday. Rubio controlled the tempo. Love showed his versatile inside-outside game. Muhammad hit the glass and ran the floor hard. Brewer made strong cuts to put himself in scoring position. They just played really well until Phoenix was extinguished.

Then again, maybe they just ran into a team that’s as un-clutch as they are. The Suns are 4-8 in games decided by four or fewer. (Still, it’s not as if Tuesday’s contest counted.)

If you want to judge Phoenix and Minnesota by their records in such games, though, you also must judge every team that way. Sure, you’ll have no issue ranking the San Antonio Spurs (9-1) the NBA’s most clutch team, but are you really ready to ride with the second-place Philadelphia 76ers (8-2)?

All season, the Timberwolves have excelled in point difference – historically a strong indicator of a team’s true ability – and struggled in the standings. It’s a result of dropping so many close games but winning most of their lopsided contests.

Their latest “non-clutch” win makes their record 28-29 and puts them 5.5 games back from the eight-place Suns. At this point in the season, Minnesota’s playoff hopes are extremely faint. Even if the rest of the season goes as point difference suggest it should – with the Timberwolves playing the seventh-best team in the Western Conference – they’ve likely already dug themselves into too deep a hole.

Announcement: Pro Basketball Talk’s partner FanDuel is hosting a one-day $120,000 Fantasy Basketball league for Wednesday night’s games. It’s $25 to join and first prize is $13,000. Starts at 7pm ET on Wednesday. Here’s the FanDuel link.

Tuesday’s result will delay it by a day, but when Minnesota is eventually eliminated from playoff contention, poor clutch play will surely be blamed. But was that really the case, or did the Timberwolves just randomly fail in a small sample of close games?

Understanding the clutch is extremely difficult, and I don’t think we’re near the point of doing it. If you watched Tuesday’s game, you know the Timberwolves were clutch. But when you examine comprehensive clutch stats for the season, it won’t show up.

Before we declare which teams are and aren’t clutch, we need a better measuring stick.

  1. mnsadsportsfan - Feb 26, 2014 at 9:36 AM

    It is about time that the start giving shabazz some run!

  2. conjecture101 - Feb 26, 2014 at 10:24 AM

    “and Shabazz Muhammad (yes, really) ”

    It’s totally foolish how people just decided Muhammad was no longer a good basketball player because of a series of overblown occurrences in his 1 season at UCLA. Last night proved, not only is he a good basketball player, he will end up being one of the top 5 players from this draft class, if not the best. He is 6’6 with long arms, an extremely good rebounder for a guard, and one of the few guards in basketball who has a legitimate post up game. Not only that, his athleticism is top tier, and he can shoot the 3 ball. There is nothing about this kid’s game not to like.

  3. imthedudedude - Feb 26, 2014 at 11:06 AM

    Suns turned the ball over too much and couldn’t stop them from getting easy layups all night. That being said, the refs were the real stars of the night. 32 free throw attempts for minny. Make up call after make up call, late whistles, the most inconsistent officiating. Guys getting hacked out there with no calls. Then start calling moving screen fouls like no other. when Goran hit the deck and needed some time to get up… Delay of game.
    Rubio should be getting a call from the league office.. Maybe 3 separate calls.. One for each violation last night.

    • dluxxx - Feb 26, 2014 at 12:31 PM

      32 FT attempts sounds about right. The Wolves get to the line a lot. These aren’t the jump shooting Wolves of years past.

  4. jazz11001 - Feb 26, 2014 at 12:48 PM

    The Wolves are getting better and better each day. If they can make the playoffs and be a team that is coming together at just the right time then they could do some damage in the long run. They need the bench to score 20 to stay competitive and recently they have gotten that.

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