Finally a positive defensive effort out of the Wolves tonight. The team has been horrid on that end over the first three preseason games, posting an all-around shameful defensive rating of 115.2 (worst in the preseason entering the night).
That is, up until tonight in Ottawa against the Raptors in the second game of a two game NBA Canada Series between the teams.
At halftime, Minnesota trailed 54-43. The defense was still struggling to show any sort of resistance, and a very faint interest in defending the 3-point line. But everything changed in the third quarter. Toronto scored only 13 points in the period as the Wolves forced them into a six minute scoring drought with stingy defense from the 06:42 mark (Toronto was up 63-48) until only 42.9 seconds remained in the third (Toronto, 64-60).
Rotations were quicker, help defenders were actually serving as help defenders, and the team was contesting shooters along the perimeter; something they absolute haven't done before tonight.
In the fourth quarter, it was the lineup of Tyus Jones, Zach LaVine, Damjan Rudez, Nemanja Bjelica, and Gorgui Dieng that pushed the Wolves to their first preseason win, 89-87. Dieng (14 points to lead all scorers), Jones (12 points, four rebounds, and three assists), and Bjelica were all excellent off the bench tonight. LaVine struggled in his return to the bench, forcing a majority of his eight attempts, though the move to insert Prince was likely experimental and isn't something to get used to.
Prince was effective though, scoring 13 points in almost 20 minutes as the starting wing next to Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins (3-10 with 11 points and four turnovers) didn't play particularly well offensively, aside from one seriously explosive backdoor cut that led to a sweet no-look dish from Andre Miller, who started at point guard, that ultimately resulted in two made free throws. But he was good on defense and made smart passes throughout the game.
The defense looked by far the best it has this preseason in the second half. Karl-Anthony Towns (12 points, six rebounds, and three blocks) played well, adding three sterling rejections to the cause, while the second unit trio of Rudez-Bjelica-Dieng worked nicely together in the third and late in the contest. Jones still has tons of work ahead of him defensively, that much was apparent yet again tonight, but he's ahead of the curve offensively; his ball movement has been fantastic this preseason, he's hitting three's, and has shown the ability to execute in the pick and roll with Dieng as his partner in crime.
A familiar face led the attack early in Toronto. His name is Anthony Bennett. We weren't treated to many performances like this during his short stint in Minneapolis. AB went 3-4 from three, adding eight rebounds, three steals and three turnovers to his 10 points in 22 minutes. Good for him. Derrick Williams has done the same thing a couple times throughout the years (i.e. only showing up if it's against the Wolves). Truthfully, the Wolves probably wouldn't have won the game if Kyle Lowry didn't sit out (really, 40 points in a preseason game?).
Gorgui Dieng was quite good off the bench tonight, continuing his strong play out of the gates. He even hit a spot-up corner three, which is hilarious because he was talking about showing his corner three in the locker room after the first preseason game against Oklahoma City, which simply seemed like a joke at the time but here we are. Dieng made a corner three in a halfcourt set – entertaining to see in a preseason game, no doubt, though not something anyone should probably get used to.
He also successfully completed a pump-fake-drive-to-the-basket-and-dunk move which has to be mentioned. We're accustomed to seeing Dieng travel quite often after pump-faking on mid-range jumpers and shuffling his feet immediately afterwards. Not tonight, folks! His pump drew two defenders into the air, aggressively trying to swat his shot, but he took one dribble and finished with the monstrous slam. I was glad to see him finally execute this.
Meanwhile, Bjelica continues to impress. There's little doubt that he's earned the trust of Sam Mitchell with his sharp play. He finished with eight points and seven rebounds, along with a team-high +15 in 25 minutes. For the second consecutive game he's shown nice touch (and confidence) on his three-point shot (2-5). His five fouls were mostly smart, positive plays that kept Toronto from getting easy buckets.
"He can play! He can ball," the Raptors announcers proclaimed after one of Bjelica's triples. Yes, he sure can.
Lorenzo Brown barely played tonight and continues to inch closer to being the final cut. Jones and Rudez have played well in the preseason and were both useful again tonight, spreading the defense out, as real scoring threats from deep (which Brown is not). I've always been #TeamLoBro (I love that he does a little bit of everything well) but it seems like he's set to be the odd man out when the time comes to make the last roster move. The team already has 15 fully guaranteed contracts, Brown's deal is only partially guaranteed, and Jones is playing better than expected.
It's not rocket science.
Check out the final box score and highlights here. (12-24 from deep compared to Toronto's 9-24!)