This Minnesota Timberwolves team is ready to make the leap. This Wolves team is also too young to have it all come together right away. These two prevailing proclamations about Year 1 of the Tom Thibodeau era in Minnesota ran right into each other like a bang-bang charge/block call in the paint Wednesday night against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Wolves wanted to show off their new era of basketball by building on their randomly impressive season-opener record.
Over the past 20 years, the Wolves are 15-5 in season openers, but one of those five they couldn’t secure came in Memphis two years ago. That night, they fought hard as a young team trying to find their way against a tough Grizzlies squad, only to lose by four points. This time around, the Grizzlies were a bit banged up missing Chandler Parsons and Tony Allen. They got off to an incredibly slow start as the Wolves blitzed them early with 3-pointers, trips to the free throw line, and aggressive defense.
There are new, younger components to this Grizzlies team, but mostly it’s a veteran core of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley leading them. And they did what all good veterans do when faced with an onslaught against them. They took a breath. They accepted the moment. And they countered against their opponent.
Memphis started hitting 3-pointers in the first quarter — something that hasn’t been associated with the team in the past but should be this season. The Wolves would see their deficit get cut by defensive mistake after defensive mistake to leave a shooter after 18-20 good seconds of defense in a possession. But they countered at the end of the second quarter to build a lead back up.
Then the third quarter happened. The Grizzlies adjusted and came out of halftime ready to remind the Wolves of their youth. At times, Andrew Wiggins would rally the offense with scoring binges, but mostly they looked stonewalled in the path of their direct steps by older players who knew how to stop what the Wolves were attempting to do. Instead of taking that breath and accepting the situation, the Wolves splattered in some youthful panic and couldn’t close the deal.
Here are five sections of brief game analysis:
The Bad Stuff
Free throw shooting
Andrew Wiggins was overwhelming getting to the free throw line in this game. He got their 10 times in the first half alone, and 14 times total. But while that 8-of-10 success rate in the first half was exactly what you want to see, going just 2-of-4 in the second half was the minor erosion that eventually led to the collapse and loss. It’s not just on him though. 10-of-14 from the line is good but not good enough for accuracy. The rest of the team left a bunch of points on the free throw line, as well.
Overall, Wolves were 20-of-29 on freebies. Shockingly, Ricky Rubio was 2-of-5 on free throws after going 84% last season. If they shoot with the success they shot last season, the Wolves add three points to their score. Then is it a coin flip? A bit less than a coin flip in this hypothetical vacuum? Can’t leave points at the free throw line or you risk blowing a lead and a chance at a win.
Pace of the game
NBA.com clocked this game in at a little above 94 possessions. That’s not the way the Wolves want to play. Thibodeau isn’t going to be confused for Mike D’Antoni, but the Wolves want to push the ball in transition much more than they did Wednesday night. You need to get stops to do that and those made 3-pointers by Memphis certainly didn’t count as stops. You also want to play faster in this game because you want to put the pressure on Memphis. Marc Gasol can move his feet but make him sprint up the floor. Make Zach Randolph look like he’s a runaway semi-truck looking for an off-ramp.
After 27 hours of basketball, the Wolves have played the slowest game in the NBA. Not how they should approach this match-up.
Putting the defense on their heels
At times in this game, the Wolves were great at putting the Grizzlies on their heels defensively. They attacked with purpose and had the Grizzlies retreating toward the hoop instead of cutting it off in defiance. But for the most part, the Wolves often found themselves off-balance as they attacked around the basket. When that happened, the Grizzlies didn’t have to scramble and recover. They simply had to hold their ground and be ready for the counter pass or dribble.
On the other hand, they had the Wolves on their heels quite a bit, especially Gorgui Dieng. Which brings me to…
Who Mans Is This?
Marrying internet lingo with poor defense, I present to you a couple of frustrating highlights from notorious slow-starter Gorgui Dieng. I loved Dieng in the first five minutes of this game. He hit jumpers and rebounded the ball (he rebounded well most of the night). There was a small stretch late in the game in which he was making plays around the basket too. The rest of it was like watching an awkward kid try to dance at an 8th grade cotillion.
Here are two examples of Dieng just blowing pick-and-roll coverage by being too upright and not taking away the driving angles. This stuff had to drive Thibodeau insane. You can live with Dieng getting eaten alive by Gasol and Z-Bo inside. That stuff happens to most big men in the NBA. What you can’t live with is Dieng being in No Man’s Land in pick-and-roll coverage. In this first play, Rubio is harassing Mike Conley pretty well.
As Conley gets Rubio into a screen, Dieng doesn’t hedge it, nor does he protect the basket. He just keeps moving like he’s wondering if he should make a decision on how to play it and before he makes that decision, Conley has position for the layup.
Here it is again with the attack by Conley slowed down to half speed. Dieng can’t waffle between decisions here. Conley is simply too good at attacking not to take advantage. With Rubio stalking a drop-off pass to the rolling Gasol, Dieng has to smother the dribbler. Instead, he lays out the red carpet for him and gives a 3-point play opportunity in the process.
The other one happened in earlier on when Wade Baldwin was running a PnR with Gasol on the right side. Most of the time, you’re going to want to run that play as a point guard deeper into the half court — maybe around the free throw line extended. The reason for this is to give your big man room to stretch a bit while also having less real estate to make up should you choose to drive.
The danger of that is you’re operating much closer to the baseline, but the benefit if you’re a lightning quick NBA player is you can really put the defense on their heels by being closer to the rim as you start the action. Baldwin doesn’t do that. He runs it much higher, which should give Dieng plenty of time and space to force the dribble to the baseline and either wait for help on a trap from Rubio or play Baldwin straight up to force a bad shot.
Instead, Dieng is off-balance, on his heels, and doesn’t even come close to cutting off the driving lane to the basket. Maybe he wanted to force Baldwin baseline, but he never uses the right angle to attempt such a funneling. The result? A great dunk for the rookie.
Dieng was horrendous for a lot of defensive possessions. He’ll get better but they can’t have many games in which he defends these basic actions so poorly.
The Good Stuff
Andrew Wiggins took over
No need for a big breakdown on all of this stuff for the first game, so I’ll be brief. Wiggins’ play in the first half was really good. He used his positioning and quickness to draw fouls against defenders at a physical disadvantage. While he didn’t draw as many fouls in the second half, he managed to right the ship on offense by going to work in the middle of the floor. We want him attacking the basket and we want him becoming a 3-point shooter.
Andrew Wiggins 3 straight baskets in the 3rd quarter from last night pic.twitter.com/zLXGhfsQeE
— A Wolf Among Wolves (@AWAWBlog) October 27, 2016
But when the Wolves needed some buckets to stop the bleeding and keep pace with Memphis, Wiggins just obliterated the defenders in front of him. That handle is so much tighter than it was a year ago. His confidence in his jumper is high. And there’s still something very fun about him being surgical in the way he sets up moves with his footwork and then pounces into his shot when he’s created imbalance with the defender.
And hey he grabbed seven rebounds!
Karl-Anthony Towns early
Karl-Anthony Towns was absurd to start the game. He had 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting in his first 12 minutes on the floor. After that, Memphis did a better job sticking to him when he was off the ball, he missed a couple of jumpers he’d normally make, and he never got back into that rhythm in the second half. He really seemed bothered by the physicality of the Grizzlies’ bigs as the game wore on. He needs to adjust to that.
But he showed that he can be an overwhelming force on offense in stretches and the defense can’t do much about it, other than hope he misses.
Cole Aldrich’s minutes
Cole Aldrich’s defense was spectacular. In nearly 10 minutes of action, the Wolves were a +23.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, and gave up just 75.9 points per 100 possessions. Some of that is due to the quality of bench players Memphis can throw at you, but Aldrich was also just great at getting in the way of PnR attacks and being able to recover to protect the basket.
Close The Gap Update
So the big thing Thibodeau took away from last season was the idea of closing the gap at the 3-point line. I wrote about it here, but just a quick refresher course. Thibs said due to the 3-point disparity between what the Wolves were putting out last season and what they were allowing, it was like digging your way out of a 10-point hole immediately. That was the gap the Wolves wanted to close. Wolves opponents made 578 more 3-pointers than the Wolves connected on.
That’s a 1,734 point differential from beyond the arc.
After Game 1, the gap is still an abyss. The Wolves allowed 11-of-24 from 3-point range but the biggest damage was done in the first quarter. Memphis was 6-of-9 from deep in the first 12 minutes of the game, 5-of-15 in the final three quarters. It got better as the game went on, but that clap back in the final six minutes of the first quarter just killed the Wolves. The result?
Wolves were a -15 from beyond the arc after going just 6-of-18. Zach LaVine was 3-of-6. Karl-Anthony Towns was 2-of-5. Andrew Wiggins was 1-of-1. Everybody else was a combined 0-of-6. And that 20.2% 3-point rate from last season (2nd lowest in the NBA) was just 20.9% against Memphis. Part of that is how the Grizzlies take away 3-point shots, but the Wolves could’ve done more to create good looks.
The Rookie Debut
After having a horrendously inefficient scoring preseason that was buoyed by very solid defensive play, naturally Kris Dunn’s first real NBA game had him efficiently score 8 points on 4-of-6 shooting and get eaten alive by Mike Conley. He didn’t set up his teammates all that well, but Memphis can really take that away from inexperienced guards.
His buckets were fun though. The first score came on a sideline inbounds play in which the Grizzlies tried to overplay a pass to KAT. Towns immediately got the ball back to Dunn, Brandon Rush sealed off a help defender, and the baseline became a runway for takeoff. Throughout the night, he recognized open space on the floor really well when he didn’t have the ball.
KAT found him underneath for his second score, he hustled in transition for his third score, and his fourth bucket came on a nice floater when Z-Bo couldn’t decide whether or not to challenge him.
Solid debut for him. Solid debut at times for the Wolves. And much to work on. Next game is Saturday in Sacramento against the currently undefeated Kings.