As the regular season comes to a close, the Minnesota Timberwolves looked like the team they were at the beginning of the season. For a team that could end up in the play-in game, that’s not great news.
It seemed as if Minnesota was on the path to becoming a legitimate playoff squad just weeks ago. The Wolves looked poised to compete with win after dominant win once the postseason rolled around. But with losing four of their last five matchups, the Timberwolves are beginning to resemble the same group that started the year off, losing 7 of their first 10 games.
The Wolves haven’t had a stretch of losses of this magnitude since dealing with the league-wide COVID-19 outbreak in late December. And much like that forgettable stretch, one player appeared to be missing from the team’s rotation: D’Angelo Russell.
No, DLo was out due to injury. Nor was he sidelined with an illness. He hasn’t missed a game since Mar. 7, when the team blew out the Portland Trail Blazers by a whopping 43 points! But given how little he’s contributed to the team, it was almost as if Russell never even suited up.
Since the Timberwolves began their recent stretch of more competitive opponents, DLo was anything but productive. After averaging 18 and 7 for the season, the seventh-year guard’s numbers had taken a complete nosedive since Minnesota’s bout against the Dallas Mavericks on Mar. 21. Over the team’s last five contests, in which they’ve gone 1-4, Russell looked far from the player he was before the All-Star Break. Averaging just 11.2 points on 30.6% shooting from the floor, Russell’s ability to score the basketball had vanished. In his most recent slump, DLo:
- Made just four of his last 27 3-point attempts
- Finished two games with single-digit scoring
- Failed to shoot over 40% from the field
- Only shot above 30% from 3 ONCE
- Had an average plus/minus of -10.6
So what does this mean for Minnesota?
With star players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards being Chris Finch’s primary scoring options, Russell’s poor shooting shouldn’t seem like such a big deal. But with DLo’s inability to shoot consistently, opposing defenses can place more of their defensive efforts towards either Towns or Edwards. Along with injuries sidelining crucial rotational pieces Malik Beasley and Jaden McDaniels, the workload has never been on D’Angelo’s shoulders more than it is right now. Just look at how the team fares when Russell is hot versus when he’s not:
Even though his shot was not falling, Russell still has more to his game that helps drive winning. It was never his scoring proficiency that had NBA scouts drooling over the 6’4″ guard when he was at Ohio State; it was his playmaking. Whether in the open floor or a high pick-and-roll action, DLo has repeatedly proven that he is one of the best in the league at setting up his teammates with scoring opportunities, as he currently ranks 13th amongst players in assists per game.
But with his assist numbers dropping to just 5.6 over his recent plunge in performance, Finch has been forced to give a larger chunk of the rotation’s minutes to backup point guard Jordan McLaughlin. JMac is still a competent backup guard who can help facilitate Finch’s high-powered offense. But his inability to hit open shots around the perimeter allows the opposing defense to clog the paint, which jams McLaughlin’s dribble penetration pass-outs that he’s so fond of. Unfortunately, Russell isn’t hitting open shots on the perimeter right now either.
With Minnesota likely facing off against Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers in the play-in tournament, Finch and the team will need more from Mr. Ice In His Veins himself. Since arriving in LA, PG-13 is an astounding 7-1 against the Wolves. And Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue has seemingly figured out a way to shut down KAT. Towns, who has only averaged 16 points and 8 boards against the Clips since Lue’s arrival, will need as much help from his teammates as possible. And with Edwards’ inconsistent play recently, Russell will need to step up in a big way.
Ultimately, D’Angelo Russell is a streaky player who can either help your team to victory or take them completely out of contention. We’ve seen him go through slumps like this countless times, and we can expect to see more for as long as he’s on the team. For now, DLo needs to look more towards facilitating for his teammates, or else we could be seeing the man who once had ice in his veins freezing the Timberwolves’ win total.