Bucks' success a big lesson for Wolves — if only they can beat the Curse of Ja Rule (2024)

MILWAUKEE — This is what the Timberwolves should aspire to be.

The Milwaukee Bucks have a megawatt star, a savvy and forward-thinking front office that has surrounded him with players that complement his skill set, a development-oriented and tactically proficient coaching staff that brings the best out of its roster and massively upgraded facilities that have put a new sheen on a long-staid franchise that is suddenly vaulting into championship contention in a smaller market.


And if it feels like the Timberwolves are light years away from where the Bucks are, especially after the team with the best record in the NBA coasted through the first three quarters against the Karl-Anthony Towns-less Wolves before turning it on for a 140-128 victory on Saturday night, that is understandable.

What was clearer than ever as the Wolves hustled out of the arena to catch their plane and beat a winter storm home was just how critical the organization’s decisions on who will lead the front office and who will lead the coaching staff going forward are as they chart a course for the long-term future of the franchise. Because it wasn’t that long ago that the Bucks were quite a mess themselves.

They played in a dinosaur of an arena. They practiced in a church and had to pay extra attention to mopping the floors on rainy days because the roof leaked.The owners went for a splash coaching hire with Jason Kidd only to see that flame out and the front office spent significant cap space on the likes of John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova in an effort to surround Giannis Antetokounmpo with the talent to lift them up in the Eastern Conference.

The complicated ownership structure led to GM John Hammond leaving for Orlando, then a lack of agreement on his heir apparent, Justin Zanik, taking over before the group settled on 34-year-old Jon Horst. Former No. 2 overall draft pick Jabari Parker suffered a series of knee injuries and never emerged as the Greek Freak’s running mate, and despite playing in the weaker conference, the Bucks have still not won a playoff series since 2001.

That is three years before KG, Spree and Sam, folks.

Flash forward to 2019 and the Bucks are rolling. Despite being young in age, Horst is using his more than 14 years of experience in the league to make deft moves, including signing Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova last summer, trading for Nikola Mirotic at the deadline and unloading Henson and Dellavedova for George Hill in December. Horst also collaborated with ownership on the decision to fire Kidd last season and then hired Mike Budenholzer to take over last summer, a move that has brought spacing and 3-point shooting to pair with Antetokounmpo’s rim-bending ferocity.

Khris Middleton, a throw-in during a trade with the Detroit Pistons in 2013, has developed into an All-Star, Eric Bledsoe, another Horst trade acquisition, has been a great fit at the point and, most importantly, Antetokounmpo has made The Leap.

The best plays from the best player in the league on the best team in the league:

27 PTS | 10 REB | 7 AST | 2 BLK | 56% FG #FearTheDeer pic.twitter.com/NmNhliQcpT

— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 24, 2019

Horst has also surrounded himself with a tight-knit and hungry group in the front office, including former Timberwolves Milt Newton and Matt Bollero, now the assistant GM and director of scouting, respectively, for the Bucks. Add it all up and the Bucks (45-14) have a record better than the Warriors and are planning to end that 18-year playoff series victory drought.


Longtime Bucks employees are still kind of shaking their heads at their newfound status among the NBA’s elite. It was hard for them to see this coming, just as it may be difficult for long-suffering Wolves fans and employees to envision right now.

The Wolves do have a shiny new practice facility right downtown with every amenity a player could need. They may not have a brand new arena like Fiserv Forum, but they have spent millions to renovate Target Center and make it a cushier place to watch a game.

They don’t have an MVP candidate to lead the way yet, but don’t forget that Giannis is in his sixth NBA season and it wasn’t until Year 5 that he really vaulted into top-5 status.

Towns is in Year 4, was an All-Star by his third season and, before a scary car accident last week kept him out of the last two games, was showing signs of blossoming, raising his defensive and leadership qualities to match his limitless offensive game.

What the Wolves have to do going forward is make the absolute right calls in the front office and the coaching staff. The right president of basketball operations/GM, be it Scott Layden or someone else, will make the big decision on Andrew Wiggins — hang with him or trade him — add talent through the draft and be able to play chess in the trade game to amass assets and reconfigure the big-heavy roster to better fit the modern game.

The right coach, be it Ryan Saunders or someone else, will be able to establish a culture of work and a commitment to improvement after seeing the likes of Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng, Tyus Jones and Jeff Teague either plateau or regress over the last three seasons. Josh Okogie needs to develop and polish his offensive game, Dario Saric needs to solidify himself as the frontcourt running mate for Towns and the Wolves need to cultivate second-round picks like Keita Bates-Diop into serviceable role players to build out depth.


Even if his hand has been forced by injuries, Saunders is already showing the value of using more than a set rotation of eight or nine guys. Luol Deng, Anthony Tolliver and Bates-Diop all performed admirably during this two-game trip — a win in New York and a loss in Milwaukee — to make jettisoning them from the rotation earlier in the year look even more glaring.

And Towns needs the right leadership around him to help him make a similar leap to Giannis.If Towns can take some big steps over the next two summers, maybe he is not captaining an All-Star team as Antetokounmpo did this season, but a surge into the top eight to 10 players in the league is certainly not out of the realm.

That challenges that lie ahead for this franchise are significant. But the quagmire in which the Wolves find themselves is not all that different from the one the Bucks were in just a few short years ago.

Swing and miss with the decisions on coach and POBO, and the misery will continue. Make the right moves, and the thorny path to relevance can start to clear faster than some might think.

Then again, if Ja Rule has anything to say about it, maybe it’s already over.

Here are few thoughts from a game that dropped the Wolves to 28-31 on the season.

Reverse jinx?

Hip hop veteran Ja Rule performed at halftime, and I have no problem admitting my head was bouncing. Took me back to my fast-disappearing youth, when “Always On Time” was my jam.

The reception, however, wasn’t as warm as the Rule would have liked.

Ja Rule had the greatest halftime performance ever 🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/c7kCR8JMx6

— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) February 24, 2019

After the Wolves ran out of gas in the fourth quarter and lost to the Bucks, the team’s sharp social media crew couldn’t help but deliver a parting shot.

We too were hustled, scammed, bamboozled, hood winked, lead astray!!! pic.twitter.com/l9rhElC52d

— Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) February 24, 2019

And it is 2019, so that means we had beef in these Twitter streets.

You just jinx yourself talking to the GOD this way… your CURSED NOW!!! You won’t win a championship for the next 30 years… AND KAT IS LEAVING!!! Apologize and I’ll lift the CURSE!!! 😘 kiss of death… https://t.co/RzUn4vKx2Y

— Ja Rule (@Ruleyork) February 24, 2019

Oh, Ja. Ja, Ja, Ja, Ja. Did you just put a curse on a team that has been out of the first round of the playoffs exactly one time in its entire existence? Did you put a curse on a team that, despite all of the losing it has done over the years, has only won the lottery one time in its entire existence? Did you put a curse on a team that may or may not have lost a chance at a championship because Sam Cassell did the Big Balls dance? Did you really, honestly, seriously put a curse on a team that took Jonny Flynn over Steph Curry? Did you have the audacity to put a curse on the only team to ever lose draft picks because it had an under-the-table contract with Joe Smith, of all people? You’re going to put a curse on the team that employed David Kahn? On the team in which the star player’s father suffered a knee injury when Crunch the mascot took a sled down the arena steps and clipped him? On the team known for knuckle push-ups? And because we’re just having a little fun here, we’re not even going to mention the two names hanging in the rafters.


Go for it.

My theory is that the rebirth started in Milwaukee last night. Several years from now, when Towns and Saunders are hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy, we will look back on this night and thank Ja Rule.

In trying to curse quite possibly the most cursed franchise in professional sports, Mr. Rule may have just pulled off the elusive reverse jinx.

The playoff run starts now.

Tolliver’s block

The Wolves did put up a fight against the Bucks. Despite Towns being out, they led going into the fourth quarter and enjoyed a second straight strong night from their bench, which keyed the victory over New York the previous night.

Derrick Rose had 23 points on 10-for-15 shooting, Jones had nine points, nine assists and four steals, Keita Bates-Diop scored eight points, grabbed six rebounds and did not look the least bit overwhelmed in his 15 minutes and Deng scored 10 points for a second unit that all finished in the black with plus-minus while the entire starting group was deep in the red.

And for the second straight night, Tolliver was a revelation on both ends. He scored 17 points, made 5 of 7 from deep and grabbed five rebounds in 25 minutes. But the play of the game was a block on Antetokounmpo that no one saw coming.

Anthony Tolliver(!!!!!!!!!) stuffs Giannis on a dunk attempt 😳😳😳 pic.twitter.com/3ARRRn2LZi

— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) February 24, 2019

He courted death and lived to tell about it.

“It felt good. He’s dunked on me plenty of times in his career, so finally I was able to get one back on him,” Tolliver said. “With him, you have to be locked in at all times. When he was on the post being guarded by Lu, I basically just said if he spins baseline, I’m going and jumping. And if you don’t have that thought process, it’s going to be too late to time it up.

“I was just ready and prepared. He spun, I jumped and it worked out.”


The play set the tone for a night of resistance provided by the short-handed Wolves that few expected.

“No, I didn’t expect that,” Antetokounmpo said. “But he’s a solid defender, a really good defender. He got high. I looked at the tape and I was like, ‘Maybe I did not get as high as I thought,’ but I got high and he was able to block that shot. That was a great play by him.”

The Wolves are done playing the Bucks in the regular season, so Giannis will have to wait until next season for his revenge. But he’s already planning it.

“I hope next year he’s not underneath the basket,” he said, “because I’m going to make sure the next time I get it done.”

The strong play on the trip was just the latest instance of Tolliver delivering when called upon. His minutes have been up and down this season, and he was buried by Thibodeau after the Wolves acquired Saric in the Jimmy Butler trade.

In fact, the game fully slipped away in the fourth quarter in part when Saunders subbed Saric, who was 2-for-11 on the night, in for Tolliver three minutes into the period in a group that also did not have Rose’s scoring on the floor. A six-point deficit turned into 13 before Saunders went back to Tolliver and Rose, whose minutes are being closely monitored on the second night of back-to-backs, and the game was out of reach.

“It is frustrating because I know what I can contribute on a nightly basis,” Tolliver said. “Not to say I’m going to score 15, 16, 17, whatever a night. But I know I’m capable any given night of helping a team. But not only just offensively, but defensively.

“I’m one of the more vocal guys on the team, trying to cover up for mistakes and do whatever I can for a win. So yeah, it gets frustrating a little bit, but I’m just trying to stay professional and do my job whenever I get a chance.


Hard feelings

Antetokounmpo isn’t the only one who left the arena with revenge on his mind.

Saric walked out with a nasty shiner under his right eye after taking a shot from Lopez on a dunk in the fourth quarter. Several teammates weren’t very happy with Lopez staring Saric down as he lay on the court.

"There are some things worth taunting…"

REV UP your Sunday with Brook catching BODIES!!#FearTheDeer | @HarleyDavidson pic.twitter.com/hnZtk9rBUB

— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 24, 2019

Towns took particular exception to the play, woofing as he left the court and promising to put it on Lopez the next time they meet, “Just like I did when he was in Brooklyn.”

“I’m going to remember that,” he promised as he walked out of the locker room.

Saric just said “that happens in basketball” and was more disappointed in his overall play.

“This was a really bad game,” Saric said. “I was maybe tired, I don’t know. I got that feeling out there. All I can do is keep looking forward and try to be better the next game.”

(Photo: Jeff Hanisch / USA Today)

Bucks' success a big lesson for Wolves — if only they can beat the Curse of Ja Rule (2024)
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