Back in the Saddle: 7 Thoughts on Preseason Win #1
The Wolves are back and so are fans as they kicked off the preseason with a win over the Pelicans on Monday night. With New Orleans down a couple of their top players Minnesota socked them in the mouth in the 1st half before cruising to a closer-than-it-seemed win, 117–114. It just so happens that I was in attendance for this one, and seeing it all in person made for an incredibly enjoyable evening! Let’s take a look at 7 thoughts on the game:
1. The defensive philosophy switch was immediately noticeable.
Luckily for me, I was seated near the basket where the Wolves played defense in the 1st half so I was able to get and up close and personal look at the changes in their defensive strategy. Basically, they plan to mostly scrap the drop coverage of old and play a more aggressive style where the big man plays near the level of screens and weak side help defenders behind him slide into the lane to take away the roll man and protect the rim from easy buckets. The idea then is that it may leave 3pt. shooters open but they will close out like crazy on those shooters.
Well, it was easy to tell immediately that this is something the team has worked on extensively in camp. On one of the Pelicans’ first possessions Josh Okogie, the weakside defender/low man, rotated all the way over from his man in the corner to stuff a layup attempt at the rim. It was the 1st sign that this defense was going to protect the rim at all costs. As the game continued it was immediately apparent that any Pelican ball handler that made it into the lane would be swarmed by a sea of arms and bodies.
Throughout the 1st half the Wolves were able to parlay that aggressive defensive mindset into numerous blocks and steals that led to fastbreak points. We do not yet know if this defense will be able to perform against good teams, but it already looks very different than it has in the past few years. The 1st preseason game was certainly a good first impression for this new philosophy.
2. The bench was having a party all night long.
Early in the game when the 1st unit was kicking things off with some aggressive defense and transition offense it was apparent that the players on the bench were engaged and excited about what was happening. They were able to get revved up early after an Anthony Edwards steal that led to his power dunk over Brandon Ingram. Just minutes into the game, the bench party had begun. From there any Wolves highlight or even just aggressive defense was met with applause and yelling from the Wolves bench regardless of who was on the floor.
During a sequence in the 2nd quarter where Beverley and Beasley combined for a steal and dunk, Towns backed down and baptized Jaxson Hayes with a slam, and Ant got another steal for a fast break throwdown the players on the bench were falling all over one another and half of them were out on the court celebrating.
Then, maybe the loudest overall cheer of the night came late in the game with the Wolves just running out the clock. The team’s best players were on the sidelines fully engaged when Leandro Bolmaro, the rookie from Argentina, came around a Nathan Knight screen and delivered a perfect pocket pass to Knight as he rolled to the rim for the slam. Guys cheered and yelled for Bolmaro, DLo went running to find asst. coach and Argentinian legend Pablo Prigioni, and the crowd went ballistic. It was an excellent capper to a one of the most joyous Timberwolves benches I have ever seen.
Now, it’s preseason and they are just having some fun, but I think it is a testament to how this team wants to act towards one another. There seems to be buy-in from the top to the bottom of the roster. For a franchise that can never seem to keep on the sunny side it is something worth celebrating.
3. Pat Beverley: Always There
I mean this in the most literal sense. If I had to describe how Beverley plays and interacts in a basketball game I would say he is always there, for better or for worse. You try to handle the ball? He’s there defending you, much too close for comfort. Drive into the lane? Pat is jumping in front trying to steal the ball or draw a charge. He forces you into a turnover? Bev is in your ear letting you know about it.
It is just as apparent with the referees. Any call, good or bad, that went against the Wolves and Pat has something to say about it. He is the classic player that you love on your team but despise on anyone else’s team, and we have not had a guy like that around here in a few years.
Beverley is not all fire & brimstone though. He was one of the 1st guys to run over to Jaxson Hayes as the Pelicans big man writhed in pain after an ankle-turn. He also ran over to KAT as the Wolves big man took a knee to the groin area from Josh Hart and keeled over. Once Beverley saw that he was going to be OK, he resumed his barking at the officials and Hart earning himself a technical but also drawing one on Hart. The crowd loved it. Make no mistake, if he is not traded Beverley will be an all time Wolves fan favorite in short order.
4. Taurean Prince is a real shooter.
I think a lot of Wolves fans were unfamiliar with Taurean Prince and his capabilities when the Wolves swung the deal to acquire him. That makes sense, as not many of us have tuned in to Hawks, Nets, or Cavaliers basketball in the past few years where Prince has been playing. Many fans, like myself, were maybe more familiar with Prince hilariously explaining what a rebound is when he was in college. So when he checked into the preseason game as the 1st sub off the bench and started raining 3’s it maybe came as a bit of surprise!
Well, one look at his past statistics and fans will find out that he was brought here to shoot the ball from the 3pt. line. In the preseason game he nailed his 1 attempt from beyond the arc in the 1st quarter, then was quiet until after halftime. In the 3rd quarter he was suddenly on fire though as he his 3/4 attempts and all 3 of his makes were within a very short span.
One of the most encouraging plays of the night for Prince displayed just how easy he can make life for his teammates with his corner shooting prowess. Halfway through the 3rd quarter Beverley came off a Naz screen and drove hard to the rim. Help defense rotated to Beverley and he made the easy pass to Prince in the near corner. Prince had a little space to get the shot off because of a lazy closeout from a defender, so he rose up and confidently stroked it. Simple, easy, and took almost no effort from the Wolves to make it happen. Shooters can make offense so much easier for everyone around them, and it’s great to have Prince here to be one of those guys.
5. So about the rebounding issue…
It can never be ALL positives, and it was fairly easy to point out the main negative in this game for the Wolves. They were absolutely hammered on the boards early in this game. They were only out-rebounded 53–49 overall, but New Orleans came away with 19 offensive rebounds and it was very apparent initially that they were the more aggressive rebounding team. It looks even worse when you realize the Pelicans did not even play their 2 best big men, Jonas Valanciunas and Zion Williamson.
One caveat to all of this, in some reading about the Pelicans earlier in the offseason, it sounds like they are committed to crashing the offensive boards, and because of this the Wolves were able to leak out for some transition buckets as they won the fastbreak scoring battle 21–8. But overall it seems like rebounding will once again be an issue that needs solving.
I do trust Chris Finch to try to resolve this, and I am doubting he cares a ton that they were out-rebounded last night specifically. If he did, we likely would have seen Jarred Vanderbilt in the starting lineup or the Naz Reid/Karl-Anthony Towns pairing make an appearance. Even Nathan Knight could have gotten some run earlier in the game if Finch wanted to solve the issue in-game. I do not think the Wolves will be a “great” rebounding team, but there seems to be a few ways the Wolves fan mitigate their losses on the boards when the regular season begins. For now, this is certainly the biggest issue to monitor.
6. Let’s talk about those Pelicans young guys!
You are not here to read about the Pelicans, but I just want to point this out quickly. New Orleans has assembled an impressive group of young guards and wings to fit alongside the generational talent Zion Williamson. Kira Lewis Jr. plays like a lightning bolt in transition, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker is a jitterbug that can get his shot off from anywhere.
The wing players are even more notable. Naji Marshall was solid last season as a rookie and crashed the boards like a man possessed in the preseason game. His length and strength made him a terror for Wolves rebounders to deal with. Their two wings drafted this season, Trey Murphy and Herb Jones have some NBA-ready abilities as well. Murphy went 6–10 from the 3pt. line and almost singlehandedly won them the game. Herb Jones seems much larger than his 6’6″ listing would suggest and seems like he will be a lockdown defender for years to come. I still do not think the Pelicans are going to be great this year, but I think they are doing a good job of putting the right archetype of players around Zion Williamson.
7. The Wolves blew them out in the 1st half
Yes, it’s preseason. Yes, New Orleans was missing 2 of their top 3 players while the Wolves were fully healthy. Yes, the Wolves should win that game easily. And they did. The only real takeaways should be from the first 2.5–3 quarters of the game. That is when the rotation players were in the game for both teams. In that span, the Wolves did exactly what they should do… They dominated! They were up by 20 at the half and 16 after 3 quarters. Minnesota stretched the lead to 24 points with 4 minutes left in the 3rd quarter when the Pelicans took a timeout and both teams started to empty the benches. The Wolves did exactly what they should do to a shorthanded team. Preseason or not, it will be important to establish that type of mentality.