In what may be the most anticipated game of this year's Las Vegas Summer League, the Minnesota Timberwolves defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 81-68. Thomas & Mack Arena in Las Vegas was packed to the gills, and it was not a Wolves-friendly environment. That was about the closest thing to an away game you can get in Summer League. The Lakers travel well, and their fans cheered every bucket from Jordan Clarkson and D'Angelo Russell and every miss by Karl-Anthony Towns. However, the young Wolves responded well to the challenge of the Lakers' talented backcourt and came away winners.
The story of this game has to start with Zach LaVine. From the very start of the game, he was looking to score quickly and in bunches. He finished the game with a game-high 24 points, 18 of which were in the first half. He often looked to shoot the 3, going 4-of-8 from behind the arc (sometimes WAY behind), and also tried to end a couple of Lakers' existences with monstrous dunks. One of those dunk attempts may have resulted in his reduced scoring in the second half. Midway through the third quarter, he went up for a dunk and was fouled, missing the dunk. He injured his right ring finger on the play and was in the locker room for a bit of time, but returned and was pretty effective in the fourth quarter, hitting a couple of key buckets down the stretch.
As for the rookies, Karl-Anthony Towns and Tyus Jones, results were mixed in their first taste of NBA competition. Jones came off the bench and played 16 minutes, sometimes on the ball, and sometimes alternating in lineups with Lorenzo Brown. His only counting stats were 2 rebounds, 1 steal and 3 turnovers; no points or assists. Towns was quite clearly the subject of the Lakers' defensive game plan and was frequently double-teamed for the entire game, and also dealt with Tarik Black, one of the more challenging matchups in Summer League at the 5. He still managed to score 12 points, but only pulled in 3 rebounds. However, his passing was the eye-catching thing in his display. Several highlights are out there already, but there were many more where quick passes from Towns didn't lead to buckets, or led straight to turnovers. There were a couple that felt like passes from a certain veteran Timberwolves point guard, where Towns' mind and thoughts were ahead of his teammates'. The opportunity was there, but Towns was the one that saw it. As the team plays more together, these could develop into effective scoring plays.
The other primary offensive threat for Minnesota, oddly, was Lorenzo Brown. Brown had 17 points to go with 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. He, like LaVine, was much more comfortable looking for his shot, and was often the beneficiary of Towns' passing from the interior. Brown never seemed that comfortable calling his own number during the regular season last year, and while again, this is only summer league, if his shot continues to develop, he should absolutely remain a member of the Timberwolves' regular season roster.
Down the stretch, as the Wolves built their lead back up from a 56-56 tie at the end of the 3rd, the offense went through Towns on the inside as well as Adreian Payne and Othyus Jeffers. Payne finished the game with 10 points and 9 boards, leading the team in rebounding. He continues to have the skill to acquire rebounds that, on some occasions, others cannot get to (and of course, the occasions that others could easily get to). Payne had a couple of nice plays on offense down the stretch (8 of his 10 points were in the 4th, which led the Wolves), and while he's essentially the same player he was last year, there are still flashes of potential there, both in his jumper and in his rebounding. Payne's rebounding was the only reason the Wolves were even close in that category against Black and the other Lakers' bigs.
The Wolves were competent on offense, with flashes of great ball movement and shot creation. They were competent on defense, although, in the fourth quarter especially, they were indebted to the Lakers' inability to take care of the ball. LaVine might be one of the better players in Vegas this weekend, and Towns and Jones won't be playing their first NBA game again. They have the experience under their belts, and should be more comfortable tomorrow in game two. I'll have more coverage later tonight with quotes from Towns, LaVine and Ryan Saunders.