Early Impressions (WOLVES 97, Pistons 91)

Forming Early Impressions of the 2014-15 Timberwolves

It was important to get a win last night. For one thing, the Wolves opened their season against at Memphis, where victory seemed nearly impossible and in fact the Wolves lost. They also have the Chicago Bulls coming to town on Saturday. Many expect Chicago to win this year’s East. Therefore, last night’s contest versus the Detroit Pistons was the only clear-cut winnable game of the first three.

For another thing, Flip Saunders and the Timberwolves were introducing their new players to the home crowd for the very first time. The #EyesOnTheRise crew and the entire roster were introduced out of the tunnel with a laser show and drum line. Clearly, Flip is channeling his inner 1970s Bill Musselman — a personal basketball mentor of his — in promoting this Wolves product with as much flair as he can get away with while also carrying out his duties as coach and front office boss.

So with these heightened stakes, the victory that the Wolves pulled out in the closing minutes of last night’s game — thanks to the huge run in the 3rd Quarter behind Pekovic’s work around the basket, and a string of Andrew Wiggins highlights — caused some excitement and perhaps some sense of relief. While the Wolves don’t — can’t — realistically expect to vie for a playoff spot, they do have hopes of being competitive. Beginning the season 0-2 with Chicago up next would’ve set things off on a shaky track.

The Pistons entirely closed what was a 19-point Wolves lead (70-51) when Caron Butler hit a three with 1:43 to play. Butler was out of his mind shooting the ball in the 2nd Half (finished with 24 points on 10-14 shooting) which led the Pistons comeback. But Thad Young immediately answered with his own three. From there, Mo Williams hit one more shot and the Wolves fouled Andre Drummond — a career 40% foul shooter — to help prevent anymore shooting silliness from Butler. A win was had.

It is difficult to watch this team right now and come away with conviction about much. There are just so many players who do so many different things; both good and bad. Flip played 11 different guys last night, and — in his postgame remarks — he naturally emphasized the struggle that he experiences trying to set a rotation that satisfies all of his players. He mentioned that Chase Budinger did not get into the game. He also mentioned that if they had lost the game, he would’ve second guessed himself for not subbing Wiggins back in to defend Caron Butler, who had heated up (putting it mildly). But as things played out, they hung on for the win and Flip was happy that Wiggins had left the game having played well, experiencing what Saunders referred to as “positive reinforcement.”

Last night’s game was not necessarily a pretty one. Both teams fouled too much. For the Wolves, Ricky Rubio and Mo Williams were reaching all night and combined for 10 fouls. For the Pistons, star center Andre Drummond had to check out in the 3rd Quarter having picked up his 4th foul. That one may have swung the game’s outcome. Drummond’s backup, Greg Monroe, was out serving a suspension.

Because there are so many players and so many different types of action with the Timberwolves in their season’s early moments, it’s almost easier to just rattle off the good and bad.

So here are a few things that I liked in last night’s game:

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Gritty, Ultimately Grinded (GRIZZLIES 105, Wolves 101)

Tonight’s loss at Memphis accentuated what many believe will be a season-long theme:

This Timberwolves team has a LOT of players.

Over the course of the season this will cause effects both positive and negative.

On the plus side, a deep rotation is insurance against injuries and excessive fatigue. If one player is struggling, maybe his replacement will get hot. There was some of this in tonight’s opening game.

On the negative side, it makes Flip Saunders’ job difficult. If certain players are taking over the game in the middle of the fourth quarter (all hypothetical of course:)) should he ride them to the finish? Or should he put the starters back in, with a predetermined plan to close with slightly-more savvy vets? There was also some of this in tonight’s game.

The game at Memphis was hard fought, with Memphis holding a single-digit lead, most of the way. Zach Randolph was a matchup nightmare for Thaddeus Young, who otherwise played fabulous basketball. Z-Bo finished with 25 points on 12-16 shooting, operating in the deep low post against Young. Thad had 26 of his own points, mixing square-up drives to the cup with perimeter jumpers and hustle-junk buckets around the hoop.

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Punch-Drunk Preview, Part II: The Timberwolves Edition

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On Monday night we previewed the whole league. Now, I’m back to preview the Timberwolves season (that begins tonight in Memphis) in more detail.

I thought it made sense to organize this by three categories:

* Things that I’m excited to see

* Things that worry me

* Things that I expect — or do not expect — to happen

Let’s dig in, shall we?

Anticipation & Excitement

* Player that I’m most excited to watch –> Ricky Rubio

I’m most excited to watch Ricky Rubio play this year, for reasons that I and many others have written about ad nauseam. With Rick Adelman and Kevin Love gone, the Wolves will run a lot more ball screen action with Rubio. Gone is the high post-centric “Corner Offense” that Adelman learned from Princeton legend Pete Carril. In its stead will be… well, we’re not exactly sure yet. But anything different should be an improvement for Rubio, who was a terrible Princeton fit. Since most NBA teams run a lot of high ball screen action, it’s reasonable to assume the Wolves will do that, too.

The hope is that Ricky will look like a more-skilled version of his rookie-year self. That guy was the league’s most entertaining player and had his team playing over .500 ball at the time of his injury. Sure, they had Love playing at a high level and producing more than Rubio. But if you remember, that was also before Pekovic broke out as a good center, and it was with the wing positions filled by Luke Ridnour, Wesley Johnson, Mike Beasley, and a hobbling Martell Webster. Ricky was the initiator of offense, and good enough to lead–sometimes carry–them with his playmaking. I’m hoping to see that player again this year.

* Player whose development I’m most interested in following –> Andrew Wiggins Continue reading

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Punch-Drunk Preview, Part I: The NBA-Wide Edition

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Good news, sports fans: Another NBA season begins tomorrow night. TNT is showing a Western Conference double-header that leads off with Mavs at Spurs and closes with Rockets at Lakers. If you’ve got League Pass, you can catch Magic at Pelicans in the early slot. (Eds note: That’s what we’ll be watching. November is for Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, and Anthony Davis. We’ll see enough Dirk and Duncan, come spring.)

In Part I of the Punch-Drunk Preview, we’ll discuss topics ranging in seriousness and importance across the league as a whole. On Wednesday, we’ll get down to the specifics of this year’s Timberwolves team.

Without further ado…
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JJ & The Timberwolves: Time to Move On

Today’s news that JJ Barea’s contract will be bought out is not surprising, but it is also not insignificant.

Barea struggled last season and played his worst basketball in years. Not only were his numbers down, but his style of play was extra disruptive. And for J.J. Barea, that is saying something.

Slotted next to the passive and overwhelmed Alexey Shved, J.J. took ball dominance to levels previously unheard of. To watch the six-foot combo guard (presumably measured in platform shoes) attack five waiting defenders all by himself was sort of like witnessing a train wreck while at the same time listening to nails on a chalkboard.

Well… except for the times that it actually worked, and he scored. This didn’t happen enough to carry the Wolves lackluster second unit, but when J.J. would herk and jerk his way into the lane, intentionally bounce off of a power forward’s body, and drop in a floater off the glass, fans would just shake their heads. Partially in wonder and amazement, and partially in resignation that by succeeding now he would only be encouraged to try it again next time. Continue reading

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The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Episode 7

In which we review the preseason, prospects for the regular season, and Mike Penberthy.

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Bennett & Rubio Lead Wolves Over Pacers (WOLVES 107, Pacers 89)

For the second and final time, the 2014-15 Timberwolves played in front of their home crowd, in a game that did not actually matter. Like their first preseason home game, the Wolves were victorious; this time convincingly so. Anthony Bennett and Ricky Rubio led a balanced scoring attack in the Wolves 107-89 win over the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers sat David West and Rodney Stuckey, and are notoriously without Paul George for an extended period of time. The Wolves sat Andrew Wiggins with, as Flip Saunders described it, a swollen butt. “He has a third butt,” Saunders explained. Wiggins apparently fell on his rear end in the recent loss against the Bucks. He’s likely to sit out of tomorrow night’s game as well.

But even with those key absences, there were some interesting takeaways.

First and foremost was the play of Bennett. The 2013 number one pick continues to show promise. Tonight he scored 17 points on 7-9 shooting, along with 5 rebounds in just under 17 minutes of action. He scored in a variety of ways around the basket: a tip-in, a cutting finish off a Pekovic hand off, and three buckets in the 4th Quarter off of Mo Williams assists. Also, and less impressively, he (appeared to) accidentally bank in a long jumper from the wing in the first quarter.

In the early part of the game, Bennett looked a little bit anxious, and –aside from that accidental bank — he wisely went about setting screens to get comfortable. When he caught a pass at the top of the key, he quickly swung it around to the other wing. As the game went on, he sought out more scoring opportunities. His jumper comes quick off the catch, with a high release. While he is rapidly developing chemistry with Williams and the second unit, he could form a nice 1-4 pairing with Rubio as well.

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