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Thibodeau Takes Big Gamble by Putting Ball in Derrick Rose’s Hands

Basketball Insiders takes a look at Tom Thibodeau’s decision to heavily feature Derrick Rose in Game 1 against Houston.

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The Minnesota Timberwolves are in the playoffs after an exciting victory over Denver Nuggets in their regular season finale. Despite barely slipping into the postseason, the Timberwolves are no pushovers. In Game 1, they put pressure on the Houston Rockets in a game that was close down the stretch.

“This isn’t your normal eighth seed, they got a couple of All-Stars that are pretty good down there. Well coached, we know how tough it was going to be,” Rockets superstar James Harden said after the game, speaking of the Timberwolves.

The Timberwolves have been buoyed all season by the strong play of Karl-Anthony Towns and the leadership of Jimmy Butler, both All-Stars and the first for the franchise since Kevin Love in 2013-14. In addition, the team continues to be encouraged by the continued growth of forward Andrew Wiggins.

So, why exactly are the Timberwolves relying on backup guard and former Chicago Bulls player Derrick Rose so much? It was no surprise when rumors began to circulate late in the season that Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau had interest in acquiring Rose after an unsuccessful brief stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. In nine games with the Timberwolves this season, Rose put up a career lows of 5.8 points, 1.2 assists and .7 rebounds (12.4 minutes per game). Per 36, this translated to 16.7 points, 3.5 assists and 1.9 rebounds, all at or around career lows. In addition, his PER, true shooting and assist percentages were at or around career lows adding up to an unimpressive showing.

Thibodeau, formerly the Bulls head coach, is well known to place trust in former Bulls players. He engineered a trade for Butler and the signing of Taj Gibson in the offseason. In the Timberwolves first playoff game, Rose played 24 minutes (nearly double his regular season average) and scored 16 points on 50 percent shooting to go along with four assists and two rebounds, far above his season averages.

Rose didn’t just cover backup type minutes either as he was inserted into key stretches in the third and fourth quarters as the game went down the stretch. He scored on a catch and shoot three-pointer, on the break, out of the pick and roll, off the dribble, while cutting to the basket and moved the ball around in key spots for other players.

Thibodeau mentioned Rose briefly and spoke positively of his contributions.

“I thought Derrick gave us a good lift off of the bench,” Thibodeau said.

Speaking to the media. Rose related this key stretch to his previous playoff experiences with the Bulls.

“I remember the playoff games when we played against Miami and the only thing you want to do is stay close until the fourth quarter. Or if you get the lead before then, sustain it and try to make it larger for the bench and for your team,” Rose said.

Unfortunately, not everything was so sunny for Rose who has a penchant for taking difficult shots. He sported a -6.1 net rating for the game, indicating his play may have been detrimental to the team. To end the second quater, he missed a 21-foot step back jump shot in isolation. He also turned the ball over to end the third quarter with his team down one leading to a three-point play for Harden. This resulted in the Timberwolves going down four to start the fourth. Rose’s play contributed to the end of quarter difficulties, which Thibodeau touched on after the game.

“We didn’t finish quarters the way we would have liked,” Thibodeau said.

For the game, Rose’s usage percentage was a whopping 30.8 percent, showing that at this stage of his career, he still insists on controlling the ball. For reference, this is in line with his career playoff numbers. Besides Rose’s rookie year, his lowest playoff usage percentage was 29.1 percent, putting this in line with his postseason career. Of course, Rose isn’t close to the player he used to be after numerous injuries. This high usage can also come at the expense of key Timberwolves players. For comparison, Butler had a 15.6 percent usage and Towns a 14.2 percent usage.

In addition, Rose talked about the role he sees for himself as a key defender matching up with MVP favorite Harden.

“I’m doing the best I can. He’s MVP right now. My job is just to irritate him, try to get under his skin, pick him up full court but at the same time just compete. That’s all I’m doing out there,” Rose said.

Rose is not a noted defensive stopper and having him also attempt to slow James down is a risky proposition when combined with his high usage on offense. Rose’s play also comes at the expense of those who might play in his place. Third-year backup point guard Tyus Jones played all 82 games this season with a drastically lower usage percentage. Unlike Rose and starting point guard Jeff Teague, Jones can be successful playing off the ball. While Rose showed poise in this first playoff game, Jones might have served as a better complement to a team with two stand-out wings and a big man who ideally should be leading the team in usage instead. Basketball Insiders spoke to Jones before the Rose acquisition where he explained why he thought he could contribute more this year.

“This being my third year, I think I’m starting to settle more into the NBA game a little bit more. Things are starting to slow down for me,” Jones stated and while explaining how he saw his role on the team. “Just trying to do whatever is needed out of me, whatever coach needs I’m willing to fulfill that role.”

Jones did play seven minutes this game and actually found Rose on the break who converted a contested lay-up. In this game, both Teague and Rose had difficulty finding Towns in the post. The Rockets focused on Towns, sending both double teams and aggressive switching. The switches, at times, presented mismatches down low that the Timberwolves’ guards weren’t always able to capitalize on.

Going forward, Thibodeau put the onus on Towns, stating that he would have to be able to adjust. All signs point to Thibodeau continuing to trust Rose and putting him in this key position. Rose can put up numbers, as he did on Sunday, but it’s not clear that he’s actually helping Minnesota in a series where they need all the help they can get.

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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