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Thibodeau: Fast pace not always the best

MINNEAPOLIS -- Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau believes pace is a product of a team’s personnel.

If you have dominant big men and an older team, you’re likely to walk the ball up the court. For instance, you won’t see San Antonio push the action too often.

Fast pace is often thought of as the best pace, but that isn’t always true.

Thibodeau points to last year’s four conference finalists — Golden State, Oklahoma City, Cleveland and Toronto — and the fact that only Golden State played at a fast pace; the other three did not.

“The thing is to play to your strengths, and sometimes it’s medium pace,” Thibodeau said. “Ideally, you want as many easy baskets as you can.”

Those are the layups, dunks, corner threes and free throws. Thibodeau said teams build their plans around getting those shots. The best way for Minnesota to get those shots would seem to be in the open floor. While some teams don’t have the personnel to run, the Timberwolves do with athletic young talent like Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad, all working under the direction of transition maestro Ricky Rubio.

“I think, if you’re young and athletic, trying to get into the open floor is critical,” Thibodeau said.

Thus, it’s critical for the Timberwolves.

But Minnesota hasn’t done enough of it this season. Heading into Tuesday’s games, the Timberwolves ranked 22nd in the NBA in pace, averaging 97.3 possessions a game, and tied for 17th in the league with 12.4 fastbreak points a game.

There are a few reasons for that. One, teams can adapt against teams that are likely candidates to run. Thibodeau said experienced teams understand floor balance, so they might send three guys back on defense as soon as a shot goes up. And when they’re on the road against certain teams, they might send four or even five players back on defense, surrendering the chance to get an offensive rebound.

“So, now, at best, you’re not getting any fast breaks, you’re getting a secondary action,” Thibodeau said. “You’re going to force a swing of the ball.”

That’s why the Thibodeau said teams have to be able to execute their half-court sets. If teams take one thing away, it should open up other options.

But no one seems to want to run more than Thibodeau, who implores his players to push the ball after every missed shot or turnover and has even flashed some different looks to get the running game going. For instance, Minnesota has shown a look where it pins two wings in the corners on the opposite side of the floor when the opposing team is shooting free throws. So even if the last free throw is converted, Minnesota inbounds the ball quickly and looks to push it upcourt, which has created a few quick opportunities.

Still, the easiest way to manufacture chances to run is by forcing stops on the defensive end.

“Obviously you’re trying to do that as much as you can,” Thibodeau said with a smile. “I have no objection to that.”

But that’s something Minnesota hasn’t done on nearly enough occasions this season. Thibodeau has talked about the importance of running late in games to get easy buckets when other teams are locking down defensively. But the Wolves have been even worse at that, averaging just 2.5 fastbreak points per fourth quarter, 20th best in the league.

That might explain why the Wolves’ fourth-quarter offensive rating is so low — 23rd in the league — when they sport the 10th best offensive rating overall.

“Running late is important,” Thibodeau said.

But it all starts with getting stops. In key victories the past few weeks, Minnesota has scored easy transition buckets in the final half of the fourth quarter after forcing missed shots or turnovers.

“If you’re taking the ball out of the net, it’s slowing you down,” Thibodeau said. “You still want to run and try to get it up as fast as you can, but it’s different if you make them take a tough, long, contested two and it’s a long rebound and now you bust out and everyone’s flying up the floor, and that’s where we can take advantage of our athleticism.

“I want to take advantage of that athleticism with our defensive rebounding, as well,” Thibodeau said. “I think it’s one of our strengths. And then get into the open floor and try to attack that way. I know one thing: If Zach and Wigg or Karl is coming at you with the ball and you’re backpedaling, I like our chances.”

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