But blaming crunch-time performance on bad luck doesn’t pass the smell test anymore. It’s true that team clutch performance tends to regress to the mean over long samples; ask this season’s Blazers. Some teams and players chronically over-perform in crunch time, and others chronically **** the bed.
This is Minnesota’s third consecutive season of catastrophically bad crunch-time play. This is no longer a blip we can assume will self-correct. This is a disturbing trend, one that infects both sides of the ball.
The Wolves are a sound defensive team overall, but they’ve been bad on that end in crunch time, and one trend has surfaced across all three seasons: A team that rarely fouls in the first 45 minutes can’t stop fouling at the end of games. Only Denver has allowed more free throws per field goal attempt in the last three minutes of close games this season, per NBA.com, a carryover from the two prior seasons. Overall, the Wolves have allowed 116.1 points per 100 possessions in crunch time, the third-worst mark in the league, and one that would rank miles below the NBA’s leakiest overall defense.
Some of this is noise. The minute samples are small, and when Minnesota falls behind, it has to foul to prolong the game. About half the fouls it’s committed inside the three-minute mark of close games have been intentional.
But some of it is not noise. I’ve watched every crunch-time Minnesota foul over those three seasons, and a few trends emerge:
• Love and Pekovic tend to reach in against paint scorers. It’s as if they know they can’t block shots, but are so desperate to stop any potential scoring opportunity that they’ll risk fouls in chasing knockaways. Love has gotten better about this — it was a plague two seasons ago — but it still happens:
(Note: I’d link to clips of these plays, but NBA.com’s public stats sites allow for such links on almost every play type but personal fouls.)
• Corey Brewer and Kevin Martin, two key wing free agents, gamble their way into crazy fouls all over the floor. Like, there’s no reason for Martin to be crowding Ben McLemore away from the ball here:
These guys are serial gamblers, and a lot of their crunch-time fouls happen before Minnesota’s opponent is in the bonus. But those fouls also put opponents in the bonus.
• Quick opposing point guards can puncture Minnesota’s scheme. The Wolves play a conservative pick-and-roll defense in which Love and Pekovic hang near the paint to corral ball handlers instead of chasing them far from the hoop. It works in the aggregate; neither big is a major plus defender, but they both understand the scheme and approach it with solid footwork.
But when Ty Lawson/Chris Paul types dial in late, they’ve been able to either blow by those guys or bait them into fouls. Ricky Rubio is a steals hound, and his chest-to-chest defense has also cost Minny a few whistles.
That’s really the main problem here. Opponents don’t shoot a high percentage against Minny in the clutch, kill the offensive glass, or nail a huge number of 3s.