Wolves 108, Lakers 99: A First Look

Taj and Thibs are reunited in Minnesota, and Gibson is now shooting three-pointers. Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The good news is that basketball games are back. If Media Day is the first time that we get to see and listen to Timberwolves players, last night marked the first time we actually got to watch them compete on the floor against a different team.

The bad news, of course, is that it was a preseason game, which means it was meaningless and unreliable as a measure of anything. Recall one year ago when the Wolves obliterated opponents in their final two preseason games that were played at Target Center, leaving all of us excited for the distinct possibility that Thibs’s magic was immediate and the team was ready to win, and win big. Once the real games began, things were more difficult: that same group that was embarrassing Mike Conley and Marc Gasol just a few days earlier lost at Memphis to open the regular season, before losing 4 of their next 5, and then continuing to struggle to the tune of an 11-26 record after 37 games.

For a more immediate reason to dismiss preseason results as meaningless, the Golden State Warriors lost last night to the Denver Nuggets.

Just because the game results don’t matter, however, does not mean that we cannot take anything away from the action. There were some pretty clear things to observe in last night’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Anaheim, California, and that is what this post is about.

The main takeaway from anyone watching the game was that the Timberwolves now have Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, and Taj Gibson. Even if we already knew that, it was still weird to see them all on the floor, replacing the familiar starters in their positions, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, and Gorgui Dieng. Making everything seem even newer were the new jerseys that we were able to see on the game floor for the first time.

All of the starters logged more than 20 minutes except for Butler, who played just 12. With the exception of Wiggins, whose play was a little bit sloppy and frustrated by perceived uncalled foul calls (he shot 3-12 from the field with 3 turnovers) the starting group played well. Teague registered 9 assists in just 24 minutes of action, deferring a lot of half court playmaking, but making good decisions in transition that led to dunks and other good shot attempts for teammates. Teague is going to look better than Rubio did in some important ways, and worse in others. He has a “downhill” style of dribbling that helps him probe the defense with credible dribble drives, but leaves him more tunnel visioned than Rubio, who always had his weight over his feet and head on a swivel, looking to pass in any direction. Butler was Butler, using a variety of ways to probe the defense and draw contact. He managed to score 10 points in those 12 minutes, shooting 4-5 from the foul line.

Karl-Anthony Towns began the game as an odd man out of the offensive rhythm — he just wasn’t seeing the ball very much. That is going to inevitably happen to different Wolves on different nights, now that they have so many good scorers in the same lineup. But he still ended the game with 15 points (4-9 shooting), 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks in 21 minutes of action. KAT was 3-3 from downtown; hopefully a sign that he will continue to stroke threes like he did after last year’s All-Star Break when he connected on 43.4 percent of treys.

Speaking of big men who can shoot three-pointers, Taj Gibson is not one of them. At least that is what we have been led to believe. In his entire career that spans 8 seasons and 14,657 regular season minutes played, Gibson has attempted only 35 threes and converted on just 4 of them. Attempting one three-pointer per every 418 minutes played can be summed up as: Taj only shoots threes when the shot or game clock is at 1. And that is what makes last night’s game interesting, because he took a couple of corner threes, in regular rhythm and flow, and made them both! Late in the game, Gibson missed a long jumper with his foot on the line that would have otherwise qualified as an “above the break” three attempt. Whether this signals a new habit to come, or just preseason experimentation, we will have to wait and see. How well the Wolves starting group can space the floor is one of the questions the team faces, and if Gibson can park himself in the corner for certain sets and not be completely ignored by opposing defenses, that will make life easier for his teammates. Along with his three-point bombing, Taj played a nice game and was more involved in the team offense than I would have envisioned. He ended up with 18 points (6-12 shooting), 9 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 block in 28 minutes of action.

The Wolves bench started off slowly, with Tyus Jones and Gorgui seeming to struggle to stay on the same page at both ends of the floor. Things cleaned up to some extent throughout the game, but if last night was a reliable indicator, it might take these two some time to get used to playing with each other as central figures in the second unit. Gorgui played 27 minutes of total action (Tyus played only 8) and ended up with a solid stat line of 14 points and 12 boards. For Nemanja Bjelica, coming off of foot-surgery recovery, it was nice to see him on the floor at all. He played 20 minutes, looked about like his normal self, in terms of his body and movements, and managed to get 3 assists.

Aaron Brooks came in as the third point guard, but played twice as many minutes (16) as Tyus did. It is really hard to know what is what, with the Wolves backup point guard situation, but it seemed to my eye that Tyus is more adept at facilitating meaningful offense — bringing two defenders to the ball, and getting the ball moving — while Brooks might be the more effective defender who knows how to use his hands and body better than Jones does. When Brooks was tasked with running the point in the later parts of this game, the offense really stalled and they were left at times with Gorgui or Gibson needing to create their own shot. Jamal Crawford — another Wolves newbie making his debut last night — played like a 17-year veteran who did not want to get injured in a preseason game. Crawford was more tentative than usual on offense, attempting just 1 shot in 28 minutes of action, but managed to get 4 assists compared to just 1 turnover. His conscious avoidance of injury was most obvious on a hilarious “attempt” at taking a charge, where he had his hands extended out to soften the blow. The ref called the foul on Jamal.

Shabazz Muhammad was the main story of the Wolves bench and maybe of the game itself. Bazz did all of the things we expect him to do on a hot night, like run the floor, crash the boards, and seek buckets at any and all cost. In a team-high 30 minutes of action, Bazz dropped 22 points (7-12 shooting) and had 6 boards to go along with his usual 0 assists. He looks every bit as energized, playing on his new 1-year contract in hopes for a long-term payday, as we always knew him to be.

To the extent that the game competition itself deserves any word space here, the Wolves controlled most of the way and ultimately won by 9 after leading by more than 20. The Lakers got some good bench performances from Kyle Kuzma (!) and Ivica Zubac (!!), but had a hard time defending the Wolves veteran starting lineup. Brook Lopez and Luol Deng both sat out for the Lakers and they were left with their (somewhat exciting) young core of rookie Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Julius Randle, trying to learn how to play together. Ball had 8 assists but played a pretty forgettable game. Ingram looked out of control at times, a bag of bones flying around trying to do stuff, but had some success, too.

The Wolves are traveling to China where they will play a pair of games against the defending champion Warriors. The first tilt will happen at 1:00 in the morning in Minnesota time, on Wednesday night/early Thursday morning.

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3 Responsesso far.

  1. Tom says:

    It was weird watching the wolves without Rubio, although L Ball against our second team looked a little like him (bad shooting, pretty passes and a couple of steals) I guess Ricky needed his mom to get in front of the press and scream that he is rookie of the year and has a new “unicorn” shoe coming out. I wonder how long Laker fans will enjoy the young PG who makes Ricky look like a sharpshooter. Teague schooled him badly.

    As for our new PG, I was pleasantly surprised how quick he is. He will definitely force teams to guard him on pick and roll. I hope this isn’t just preseason basketball, but what we can expect from Teague all year.

    Wiggins looked completing bored with the game last night. In the first quarter, Jimmy got the touches he was getting last year and mostly did what stars do. Make plays. KAT will do fine. It seemed like at times, he was the only one fast enough to get to rebounds (Lakers have greyhounds that can get to balls if you don’t box them out.)

    G looked out of place in the early going, but he seems like a guy that will fit with everyone and should be better served as a sixth or seventh man off the bench. Taj got points, but I wouldn’t expect him to shoot like he did last night
    or get many touches with KAT, Jimmy, Wiggins and Teague on the floor. G will be much better with the second unit.

    It wasn’t a pretty game, but it showed the difference between youth and experience. Now we get to play GS after a loss, which will be a better test of the new team. Lastly, I’m not a big fan of the new uniforms. Look generic and if Tyler Ulis jersey is any indication, cheap.

  2. pyrrol says:

    It WAS weird and disturbing to watch the Wolves without Rubio. I think I said this before, but on a likability level, you go from one of the most likeable and interesting NBA PG’s to some guy who’s a little more of a dirty player than average. It’s a jolt. However, just on effectiveness as a player, Teague was fine. He looked good out there. I actually thought he looked a little slow. He’s a lot more compact than Rubio, though strong and just looks faster. But he’s not that fast. He has a very downhill way of charging to the rim, but is not a speed demon. This is true all over the court (to my eyes so far) but perhaps most notable on D. It’s the 1st game in and homer Jim Peterson is already annoying and obsessive. He said at least twice in this game how crafty Teague is, as though to imply Rubio isn’t. Sure Teague is very crafty, and in some ways Rubio wasn’t, like around the rim. But I wasn’t thinking to myself all game, ‘Sheew, FINALLY we have a crafty point guard!’ Perhaps of all the major changes last year that one matters the least.

    I was looking forward to seeing Ball, who seems like someone, along with Rubio, to put more of a spotlight on passing in the league. Is he a guy who can help make passing cool again, help show what it can do? We are in the Steph Curry half court three era, where only freakish shooting, or at best shooting in general seems to be valued and going to the free throw line is sooo easy. Ball didn’t look that good. I don’t recall Rubio’s first preseason game, but I recall his first real game, and he was such a virtuoso passer out of the gate and had such a veteran type presence. Lonzo has none of that. For a prospect he’s a better than average passer and that’s it. Even in that respect he has a lot of work to do. But hurting him, he’s lanky, but also slow and weak. He’s maybe a marginally better shooter than Rubio, but his shot is much more broken than Rubio’s and he seems much less aware of how ineffective it is (thus his efficiency chances seem low). Now, it’s one preseason game in and the Rubio (who played professionally since 14) analogy is unfair. But there is reason to worry about Lonzo given the hype versus reality. I like people getting excited about passing, but it is odd seeing these Laker fans who were the first types to blather about Rubio’s weaknesses suddenly lust over Ball, who is so far much the same player but with more weaknesses. Hopefully Ball gets better as I’d like to see him succeed and bring some passing excitement into the league.

    Butler didn’t play much, but what a baller! And he’s fun to watch! I was really excited to see Gibson start and it already seemed to work well. However, our young guys look a little shell shocked about not being the default go to’s. Indeed Wiggins looked bored and frustrated (already!). He’s been spoiled his whole career by usage he did not earn. He’s run into a brick wall on that. With KAT, his skill is less redundant with our acquisitions, so it was odd to see him so off and out of the game at times. He did show flashes of that rim protection I feel he’s capable of. But the youth adjustment could take a while and be painful. Gorgui has a chance to feast on the 2nd unit but looked awkward. Bjelica looked healthy and got a decent amount of minutes. Shabazz played like he does, except sort of like he was happy to be playing in the NBA. There was a joy and relief to his play. Hopefully the vets will help him patch some of the gaping holes in his game, but even as is, he looks like a much better asset on a team with an actual bench.

    Not an Ingram fan over here. Never was. Will this rebuild start to look impressive this season for the Lakers or will it go into a Wolvesesque stall? Sometimes I think just ’cause it’s the Lakers it will pay off, but there are weaknesses. I already mentioned Ingram and Ball, and Randle impresses me in some ways (more than I expected to be) but he has obvious weaknesses. Not to sound like I’m on a high horse. We had to get a bunch of vets and a star to (hopefully) get our young core’s (or what’s left of it) butts in gear. And honestly, will it work? Yeah, I think so but I’m not sure how well just yet particularly in this crazy tough West.

    Oh yeah, and I guess the uniforms are made out of cheese cloth? Ours looked a bit like aprons and certainly generic. They look less ‘1999’ but man, what a missed opportunity.

  3. jmndodge says:

    Bring it on… ready for this season… all the best to favorite players Rubio/Dunn/LaVine – and hearty welcome to Teague/Butler/Gibson/Crawford/Patton – as well as bench players we will learn to know as season progresses. Bazz – good to have you home, KAT/Wiggins – as well as Dieng/Bjelica/Jones – this remains your team, play with not against the new talent, keep the title goal in view, and play your 6/12/20/30/38 minutes to the max. Win each trip up and down the floor, the game/stats/contracts/career will take care of itself. Stay strong, focused and healthy. Go Wolves

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