Shifting Expectations, Wolves Lose Big to Thunder


Tyus Jones, barely removed from Apple Valley High, started at point guard tonight versus Russ Westbrook.

How a person feels about tonight’s preseason game against the Oklahoma City Thunder depends largely on what that person expected, going into the game, and why they held those expectations. Ricky Rubio has been held out of action for the past few days and we knew that he would not play tonight. (His ailments are not expected to be serious or threaten his regular-season availability.) Add to that the announcement that 19-year old, was-attending-Apple Valley-High-School-17-months-ago Tyus Jones would replace Rubio in the starting lineup against Russell Westbrook, and nobody could reasonably expect a successful outcome. Along with the Jones/Rubio lineup swap, Sam Mitchell made a surprising proclamation yesterday: Zach LaVine will be this team’s starting shooting guard; not Kevin Martin, who was named the starter by… well, himself, at Media Day. This announcement was Mitchell putting bold, italized, capitalized type on that DEVELOPMENT word that he has been throwing around ever since taking over coaching duties. LaVine as a Day 1 starter sends a clear message that potential, and future take priority over actualized ability and the present.

So with all of that built into people’s respective Game Previews, a 23-point loss to the full-strength (well, aside from Steven Adams) Thunder was not surprising. The Wolves starting lineup featured two one-and-done rookies, and two one-and-done sophomores. None of these four are old enough to legally enter a bar in Downtown Minneapolis and yet there they were, all four of em trying to guard Westbrook, Durant, and Ibaka.

Defense was the big, obvious problem tonight. Aside from when Kevin Garnett was on the floor (all of 7 minutes 52 seconds) and when Westbrook and Durant were on the bench (they were both game-high +22’s) the Wolves simply could not get stops. Westbrook was coming off of high ball screens and flooring the accelerator straight down the middle of the lane. Help usually came, but the defense was so out of sorts that Russ was able to do something good with the ball almost every time. He had 14 points and 13 assists on the night, and was every bit as insane out there as he would be in a Finals game.

When the Thunder were not rolling behind Westbrook penetration (or transition sequences) they were running Durant off of Enes Kanter down screens, setting up equally unstoppable action on the wing. Durant, against this defense anyway, makes this a pick-your-poison proposition if there ever was one. Too much help led to nifty passes slipped to Kanter for an easy two points. Not enough help meant, well, Durant would score it himself.

In my opinion, the Westbrook stuff was more preventable (by a hypothetical, good defensive team) than what Durant was doing on the wing. I think Ricky Rubio would do a much better job than Jones and Lorenzo Brown did of jumping out, forcing Russ different directions from where he wanted to go, and at least making him do something besides those halfback dives to the rim.

In any case, the defense struggled. They gave up 122 points on 56 percent field goal shooting. It’s hard to say anything but bad stuff about that. It looked like last year, with the caveat that they (for 22 of the 48 minutes, when Russ & KD played) were facing elite competition.

On offense, Karl-Anthony Towns played well. His jumper looks great, and he was able to abuse Kanter down low. Kanter’s defensive reputation is about as bad as a post player’s can be, so this probably isn’t so noteworthy, but Towns shot the ball like a shooter tonight. He knew where he was on the floor at all times, and there was no hesitation in his silky-smooth stroke. Rubio will enjoy throwing him passes if this continues. Oh, Towns also had a vicious dunk over Mitch McGary, after collecting a missed free throw. He flexed and screamed and I think he glanced over at KG on the bench, too. He looked good tonight.

Nemanja Bjelica did not enter the game until the 2nd Quarter, which was a little bit alarming to the segment of Wolves fans both intrigued by him and frustrated by Adreian Payne, who came in much earlier. But when Bjelly got out there, he did some nice things both as a shooter, and also as a dribbler and playmaker. Perhaps his best play of the night was when he went nearly coast to coast, and instead of forcing a difficult, contested runner, he fired a bullet pass to teammate Rudez, standing in the opposite corner. Rudez, a noted sharpshooter (he took 4 shots tonight, all threes, and made 2) buried it. Bjelica also mixed it up on the glass a bit, pulling down 5 rebounds (2 offensive) in 20:40 of action.

The Wolves shot 18 threes tonight, but 8 of those came from veterans Kevin Martin and Rudez, off the bench. Those guys will get their threes up, regardless of system. The starting lineup attempted 6 threes total, and made 0 of them. The primary offense seems to go as follows:

  1. Point guard makes wing entry pass, then floats back to the opposite wing;
  2. Wing either feeds post, who is not in particularly low position, or reverses it back to top;
  3. If ball is reversed, point guard re-collects it and they work the opposite post;
  4. If they did not find anything out of a post-up look, the nearest big man might set a screen for the dribbler, without any particular emphasis on making sure the floor is spread, with shooters spaced out behind the three-point line.

As the game goes on, they improvise more. Off defensive rebounds, the Wolves are looking to really push the ball, which is nice to see. The cast of characters that you would like to see running — LaVine, Wiggins, Muhammad — are running. Towns is quick to look up the floor to find the best option. They absolutely need to have a “defense turns into offense” mentality, with the type of roster they are building. Look no further than tonight’s opponent to see a great example of athleticism cashed in for transition buckets. Along with transition opportunities, the Wolves mix in some high ball screens — occasionally entering a set that way — and also they set the aforementioned wing ball screens when the post-up stuff fails.

But the primary offense seems to be what I outlined above, and it will take Ricky Rubio to overhaul it by himself to turn it into something close to league average this season, I think.

The Wolves are — admittedly, I think — trying to copy what the Thunder did in building with supremely talented individuals first, and a coherent game plan second. If you recall, the Thunder were really bad in Durant’s first year, then again in his second year (the team’s first in OKC, after leaving Seattle) with Rookie Westbrook, and then they leaped from 23 wins all the way up to 50, with a playoff appearance. From there, they were perennial title contenders.

How easily is that formula repeated — the one where a team drafts Kevin Durant, and then Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, and then James Harden? Well, nobody else has been able to do it, but the Timberwolves have the unusual circumstance of holding the last two number one picks, and pretty highly touted top overall picks at that. Wiggins and Towns might form a Westbrook-Durant level combo in a few years.

But then again, they might not. Those guys are both MVP candidates and there’s a great chance that one of Wiggins/Towns will fail to reach those heights, and a pretty reasonable chance that neither of them will. In that case, all would not be lost, except that the Wolves would hopefully have done something along the way to build an actual TEAM SYSTEM that depends a little bit less on cartoonish athleticism and unrealistic shotmaking like Russ & KD have, and more on adherence to smart play designs, and the muscle memory of executing plays that work for normal NBA players.

So we will have to see how it goes.

The Wolves play a bunch more preseason games, but nothing back at home until October 23. Next up are the Bulls on Saturday night. I don’t know at this point if the game will be televised and/or available on League Pass.

Until then.


1 Comment

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One response to “Shifting Expectations, Wolves Lose Big to Thunder

  1. jmndodge

    Hard to make observations – because of the following…
    no Rubio – No Payne (last game) – little Wiggins
    Still…. after two games…
    Tyus and Karl both look better than I expected. Tyus can flat out shoot – and brings energy. The question is what happens when full NBA competition is on the floor.
    Old Veterans… KG either coasting or has lost it. Martin hasn’t played well. Prince? Miller missing in action and of course PEK may never play again.
    Rudez/Brown on the bubble – Brown position wise is likely essential, but Rudez (as much as I don’t want to lose Brown) shows a real shooting touch. Far better to make the cut a decision between Prince/Miller.
    Bjelica – talented, but will take time to adjust to NBA
    LaVine / Bazz / Martin all strugglling, SG will have to get it together soon.
    Dieng – likely to be critical to our success. Ready for big time play – showing improvement each season – capable of playing either instead of Towns – or with Towns on the floor.
    Biggest disappointment – our giving up on Bennett – would have been far better to have not brought in either Miller or Prince – neither of these players wins a playoff round for the team- and neither has a future. AB would have provided both.