Punch-Drunk Podcast, Episode 8: Early Impressions on the Newcomers

Will this man be playing a lot in a backcourt near you?

Will this man be playing a lot in a backcourt near you?

In which we discuss Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Thad Young, Flip Saunders, and, yes, Zach Lavine.

Enjoy.

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A Frustrating Turn of Events (MAGIC 112, Wolves 103)

Let’s begin with an assertion that I have no way of backing up with real evidence:

Had Ricky Rubio not sprained his ankle in the second quarter of last night’s game, the Wolves would’ve beaten the Magic. Probably by a comfortable margin. They’d be 3-2 and riding a winning streak into a fun game tonight at Miami.

Unfortunately, as you probably already know, he did sprain his ankle — badly, it seems — and he missed not only the remainder of the game but will probably be out for at least a couple of weeks. The Wolves ended up losing the game, 112-103 in overtime. There is no positive spin on this injury news–not unless Zach LaVine surprises everybody with quality play in Ricky’s absence, anyway. The Wolves were 2-2 and generating positive vibes about both present and future. Now, without a viable starting point guard, they figure to struggle considerably. The probably-delusional playoff hopes that we’ve heard so much about will be dashed sooner than expected if Ricky sits out a month. That would mean 14 games, and – just eyeballing the schedule — more than half of them come against likely playoff teams.

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A Brooklyn State of Mind? Wolves defeat Nets, 98-91

Ricky Rubio played well in the Wolves victory over the Nets on Wednesday.

Ricky Rubio played well in the Wolves victory over the Nets on Wednesday.

Bouncing Back and Developing Winning Habits

The Wolves won a road game tonight over an Eastern Conference playoff team that has legitimate star talent on its roster. That includes former Timberwolf legend Kevin Garnett, whose star has greatly dimmed in the twilight of his career. This felt like a big win after the Wolves’ demoralizing loss against Chicago on Saturday night. That game was decided on a last-second foul by Andrew Wiggins with the Wolves up by one. Jimmy Butler went to the free throw line and won the game for the Bulls from the charity stripe.

Bouncing back from a hard loss like the one against the Bulls, against a talented veteran team like the Nets on their home court in New York City is big for the Wolves. Yes, it’s good for restoring short-term morale, and that is important. You don’t want the team to go into an early season funk in which it develops bad habits that become ingrained in the culture that’s currently being cultivated by the Wolves organization under Flip Saunders’ direction.

As both POBO and coach, to be successful Saunders needs to ensure good habits are developed. The rookies have upside, but what kind of professionals they’ll develop into over their career will largely determine whether they reach it. This is why it’s encouraging to see the Wolves playing very hard in each game so far this season.  This year’s Wolves play more aggressively on both ends, and, frankly, they play hungrier than last season’s Wolves ever did under Adelman. If these trends continue, they’re going to be better than the Vegas bookmakers prediction of 26 wins. They’re 2-2 now, and are one whistle in the Chicago game from being 3-1.

No Sleep in Brooklyn

Tonight’s win over Brooklyn was far from a sure thing. The Nets came in at 2-1 and remain perhaps the most intriguing talent in the Eastern Conference. Even having lost Paul Pierce in free agency, the Nets’ core of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett, and Brook Lopez, who’s back from a serious injury, is a slew of experienced pros with many All-Star appearances among them. They relocated to the most interesting part of the United States, are owned by perhaps the most intriguing owner in the NBA, and have a new high-profile coach in Lionel Hollins, who replaced Jason Kidd after Kidd was ousted in a ill-fated power play apropos of a classic Russian tragedy.

But the Wolves outplayed the Nets on their home floor and managed to seal a victory in a close game that they deserved to win.

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The Wiggins Microscope, Part I: Finding Easier Ways to Score

microscope

First off, I just made up that title, and I don’t even know if this will be a series. But given the attention that we all pay to Wolves rookie Andrew Wiggins when he takes the floor, it makes sense to carry that over into closer detail of his game on the blog.

With a tiny sample size of three games — which also happen to be his first NBA experiences — we do not have a lot of data to work with. Wiggins has played a whopping 73 minutes and attempted 24 field goals. He’s made 9 of them.

So this is REALLY a first impression we’re talking about.

But having seen him play three real games now, I feel confident in saying that too many of his shots are of the “contested jumper off the dribble” variety. Those are fun to watch when they go in, but difficult to make consistently for just about anyone not named Kevin Durant. While Wiggins shares an important quality with KD — height and athleticism that allows him to get a shot whenever he desires — he’s clearly not as talented a shooter at this point in his young career. If he ever approaches Durant’s abilities as a straight scorer, he’ll be playing a Hall of Fame career.

So what can Wiggins do, for now, to get easier shots and score a little bit more efficiently?

His first two baskets against the Pistons on Thursday night offer a road map:

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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

bennettwiggins

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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