Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns received warm welcomes back to the state of Kentucky on Saturday night as the Minnesota Timberwolves were led to a 101-96 victory over the Miami Heat by the efforts of Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The Heat gave the Wolves a scare in the first half, but a relatively comfortable second half, in which the Wolves never trailed after retaking the lead, led to their third win of the preseason.
While the Wolves did have six players in double figures, it’s hard to look past the highlight efforts of Wiggins (23 points) and Towns (16 points, 14 rebounds). The Wolves finished up 51-36 on the glass, an important key to their victory. Along with Towns’ big number, Zach LaVine (!) had eight rebounds, Cole Aldrich had seven, and Nemanja Bjelica had six to help balance out the Wolves’ weakness in other areas.
Tom Thibodeau summarized the first half rather succinctly after the game: “I thought the first quarter was pretty good. I thought the second quarter was an abomination.” The Wolves took a 27-21 lead after one but got absolutely waxed in the second, 37-24, and the Heat led by 7 at halftime. The eye-popping stat at the half: the Heat were 10-16 from beyond the arc, good for 62.5%. Many of those were open corner threes. Thibodeau, as you might guess, was not pleased.
One might assume that the blame for the putrid defense of the second quarter lay at the feet of the bench unit, but the starters were equally bad. The bench unit (Kris Dunn, Shabazz Muhammad, Brandon Rush, Bjelica, and Aldrich)’s problem was also on the offensive end. Dunn’s night was not the best effort, just four points and four boards, with his two assists wiped out by an eye-popping five turnovers.
In the second quarter in particular, Dunn struggled to initiate the offense and find ways to get the ball out of his hands. A couple of his turnovers were forced entry passes attempting to feed Shabazz, but easily read and stolen away. Muhammad did not get a single shot attempt in the first three quarters, and it wasn’t entirely his fault. Dunn will improve, and did as the game progressed, but he is very much still a rookie in his first NBA preseason.
The wrinkle that eased his struggles in the fourth quarter? Bjelica. The Wolves used Bjelica as a secondary ballhandler to distribute the ball, getting different angles to find Shabazz in the post and easing the decision making process for Dunn. It worked like a charm: Shabazz’s nine points in the fourth quarter were key to the Wolves maintaining their lead, and Bjelica’s passing had a much larger impact than his two assists will show.
Bjelica had one of the better games of the night, not just for the 11 points, six rebounds and two assists. This was the Bjelica we expected: confident on and off the ball, able to both aggressively attack the basket for layups and take open threes when his man went under a screen or stepped too far away from him. Not every shot fell, but the shots he took were confident and looked good, and the ball moving through his hands was a huge key to the second unit’s offensive success.
The adjustments made at the half did just the trick, as the Heat were 3-16 from three in the second half. The Wolves closed out more aggressively in the corner, and while there were a few looks late in the game that the Heat probably should have knocked down, tired legs on both sides led to an unremarkable conclusion in terms of scoring. It was only remarkable just how many times the teams managed to throw the ball to each other in the last minute.
On the subject of tired legs, one would hope that Thibodeau’s rotations change in tomorrow’s game in Oklahoma City. The first and second half rotations were exactly the same: first Rubio and Dieng sit, then LaVine, then Towns. Wiggins played the entirety of both the first and third quarters. The second unit then played until halfway through the second quarter before the starters re-entered en masse.
The fourth quarter, the starters never re-entered, which, getting them rest was fine, but playing Dunn, Muhammad, Rush, Bjelica and Aldrich for the entire quarter was an interesting move, and the tired legs definitely showed as the game closed. None of Tyus Jones, John Lucas III, Adreian Payne, Toure Murry, Jordan Hill, or Rasual Butler saw a single second of time on the court.
While this seems totally absurd for the preseason, it lends more thought to the Wolves resting many of their players tomorrow. The Heat, on the second night of a back-to-back tonight, rested several players, and that would seem to be a wise plan for the Wolves on their own back-to-back tomorrow.
Towns, as always, had much he wanted to do better after the game. “Well, five for twelve, so that’s not the best. Four turnovers, that’s really not good. Zero assists to go with four turnovers, so that’s pretty bad. Fourteen rebounds with five offensive, that’s solid. It’s gotta be a team effort. The biggest stat that matters at the end as a team is that we won.” The win takes the Wolves to 3-1 on the preseason, with three more outings before the games start really counting.