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.