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.

On defense, Bennett was tested first on the perimeter by quintessential stretch 4, Chris Copeland. He didn’t guard him on every possession, and Copeland managed to free himself for quite a few jumpers (he attempted 6 threes in 26 minutes) but all in all, I thought Bennett did a decent job guarding out to 24 feet. Later, he matched up down low with Luis Scola and even found himself on Roy Hibbert for a possession or two. Again, he held his own. None of this is to say he stood out as a defender. He didn’t. But that’s kind of the point — I worry much more about his D than his O, so if he can just “fit in” on that end (kind of like Love does, most of the time) that’s a win for him. His upside is scoring and attacking the glass.

Rubio was the other key guy, tonight. On his 24th birthday, Ricky warmed up for the game on the Penberthy Driving Range, getting tons of shots up with his personal shooting coach. Penberthy has Ricky catching a pass at about the 30-foot mark, taking two or three dribbles in and firing from just behind the three-point line. When he does that, his release comes quicker and more naturally. It seems to encourage the appropriate use of his legs, so the ball comes out with a more consistent source of strength. (Rather than the weird set-shot form that I’ve harped about for a long time, here.)

When the game started, Ricky was eager to put his developing mechanics to use. A 9-0 Pacers run to open the game was ended by a Rubio three off the catch, without a hint of hesitation. He continued to shoot the ball when the situation called for it, which — to me — signaled some progress. Ricky ended the game with 16 points on 4-8 shooting from the field. From a long-term-outlook perspective, Rubio’s work with Penberthy is huge, and I hope to continue to see more signs of progress like we saw tonight. Indiana, even without Paul George, is no slouch defensively, which makes tonight’s performance extra impressive.

A few bullets to wrap this up:

* Shabazz Muhammad doesn’t defend out to the three-point line. Whether it’s due to a lack of faith in his own quickness to stay in front of a drive, or just a misunderstanding about how to contest shots, Shabazz is allowing players to stand with the ball and shoot over him. If this doesn’t improve, he’s going to struggle to crack the lineup. The Wolves already have too many wings vying for playing time.

* The lineups including Rubio, Corey Brewer, and Thaddeus Young will probably do some designed traps to force steals and transition offense. There was a little bit of this tonight, and on one possession it put Indiana in a panic that ended with a shot-clock violation. These three gamble for steals, but have the quickness and work ethic to switch or recover to collectively avoid giving up layups when one of them gets burned. I don’t know if the Wolves will have an above-average defense this season (they might) but they’ll have some tactical options that weren’t there with the Love-Pek duo.

* Mo Williams has a professional skillset. He can dribble, pass, catch-and-shoot, and shoot off the dribble. He’s not big, and he’ll probably find himself out of position at times, but he brings a level of expertise in certain areas that will help this team.

* Flip really does have too many guys. It’s hard to have any idea who will make up the regular 9-man rotation beyond Rubio, Young, Pekovic, and Williams as a guard off the bench. With Budinger looking healthier, is Martin’s starting spot in jeopardy? Who is the starting small forward between Brewer and Wiggins? Or should Hummel play it? Thad Young and Bennett look like the power forwards, unless that’s where Gorgui is going to play. I didn’t even mention Shabazz or LaVine. Or Barea. Something’s gotta give.

* Wolves play tomorrow night at Milwaukee. The game can be seen on FSN North.

Until then.

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