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:
* Mo Williams shooting off the dribble
* Thaddeus Young’s contributions as a scorer (19 points on 7-13 shooting)
* Young’s decision to shoot the open three when Rubio kicked it out to him with a minute to go. Young swished it for the de facto game-winning shot.
* Ricky Rubio’s aggressiveness when playing off of a ball screen. While he hasn’t found much of a groove yet in Flip’s new offense around these new teammates, he is definitely making plays. He nearly posted a triple double (11/8/7) in 29 minutes of foul-trouble-limited action.
* Anthony Bennett’s jump shooting
* Shabazz Muhammad’s improved discipline (He didn’t attempt a shot tonight in 12 minutes. (!))
* The 2nd Half scoring barrage of Andrew Wiggins.
* The seemingly-unstoppable nature of some of Wiggins’ moves
* Pekovic’s scoring around the hoop in the 2nd Half
* Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz, and maybe even Bennett going after rebounds as if their lives depend on getting possession of the ball
Here are a few things that I did not like in last night’s game:
* Rubio’s over-aggressive reaching against the tiny-and-quick D.J. Augustin
* Wiggins looking so shaky and nervous. He missed all 3 of his free throws and didn’t get going until the 2nd Half.
* The 4th Quarter halfcourt offense that too often had Rubio standing at the top of the key while the wings were running all over the place, horizontally and off of pin down screens. That action can work with a small, elite group of wings who specialize in shooting off the run (like, for instance, Rip Hamilton, who played on Flip’s awesome Pistons teams) but the Wolves don’t have any of those guys (no, Kevin Martin doesn’t deserve being featured that way) and it’s doubly ineffective when Rubio has to be stationary like that.
* The 1st Half played by Pek which included the same sluggish defense and struggles to convert around the hoop that we saw in the season opener
* Young’s decision — two possessions prior to his huge three — to pass up the open three from Rubio’s nice dish and instead drive in to a big J-Smoove block. Young should seize this opportunity to play stretch four. Ricky loves that right-to-left skip pass to the opposite wing, and Thad could bury a ton of those this year.
* Gorgui Dieng struggle to hold his ground against bigger centers (like Drummond, last night)
* Bennett not getting set up, or setting himself up, for easy baskets
* Worst of all, the way that when Kevin Martin is in the game the offense seems to be geared entirely around him. It sometimes seems as if his last name is actually Durant, the way the Wolves stop everything and focus on running Martin off of screens to go one on one. I’m really hoping that isn’t a season-long strategy.
How’s that for a game recap?
I’m just trying to get to know this team and these players. All of these are initial impressions. Rubio is really the season’s “player to watch.” He and the team have until later today to reach a contract extension, or he’ll become a free agent in 2015. He continues to work with Mike Penberthy on his shooting. He hit one pull-up jumper moving to his right in the 4th Quarter of last night’s game. That specific play — a Chris Paul staple — would help elevate him to offensive star status.
There are dozens of other things that could be written about last night’s game and I encourage you to check out all of the other awesome Wolves websites to read more about it. The Wolves play again tomorrow night, hosting the Bulls. Chicago is a title contender and will give us a tough test.
Season Record: 1-1