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Wolves starters dominate in preseason win over Grizzlies

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Tom Thibodeau screamed from the sidelines all through the night, and his team responded with crisp rotations and smart help defense.

NBA: Preseason-Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — After three quarters were in the books on Wednesday night, the Wolves had already run the Grizzlies off the Target Center hardwood, leading 91-57 behind a stout defense that turned stops into dynamic transition offense orchestrated by Ricky Rubio.

Tom Thibodeau screamed from the sidelines all through the night, and his team responded with crisp rotations and smart help defense, even if they didn’t finish how he wanted them to.

“Hands, hands, hands,” Thibs bellowed across the court in the middle of one possession. “Square up! Square, square, square,” he roared. And when the Wolves didn’t execute what he wanted, when they didn’t slide over from the weak side fast enough, or ice the pick-and-roll with enough aggression, he yelled in frustration aiming to correct the mishap immediately in the moment.

The entire coaching performance by Thibs was impressive to watch up close, even more so given that it was a preseason game. There was no chill in his entire body. There was no possession that didn’t have his full attention. Thibodeau doesn’t wait to correct mistakes; the correction happens in real time. He’s a perfectionist, a control freak in the best possible way, and exactly what the organization needed most in their quest to rise up the ranks in the rugged West. The first glimpse was powerful and it became even more obvious that the Wolves have a real game-changer calling the shots now. The attention to detail and the execution on both ends was alarming and refreshing and inspiring. To be honest, it was a little bit scary too.

The normal starters—minus Andrew Wiggins, who missed the game due to an allergic reaction of some sort—completely dominated in the Wolves 101-94 win. And that was with the reserves playing the final 16 minutes of the game. Karl-Anthony Towns dropped 31 points in 25 minutes to go with nine rebounds, and he made Marc Gasol (read: an excellent center) look old at times. 17 of his points came at the line.

In fact, he didn’t miss a free throw in the contest. Afterwards, I asked Towns if he could remember the last time he had such an impressive performance at the line.

“I definitely didn’t do it in college,” he uttered with a smile on his face. “I remember one game in High School we played East Brunswick and, if I’m right, I think I went 24-24. I guess it’s good to have a big that can shoot free throws, huh?”

Yes. That’s a very good thing, Mr. Towns.

Gorgui Dieng had 19 points, 11 rebounds, and four blocks in 23 minutes. Zach LaVine shot 8-16 for 18 points, but most importantly he was engaged defensively and looked sharper than usual on that end.

“I haven’t spent a lot of years in this league, but this is the first time I’ve felt this way in the preseason,” Dieng said. “I think I’m in the best shape I can be and as a team we can see that we’re all trying to get better every day. I know you hear it a lot—coach talks about closing the gap—and that’s what we try to do every day.”

As for Rubio, well, it was another classic Rubio performance that would leave those who didn’t actually watch the game shaking their heads at the people who lauded his two point, seven assist, three steal stat line. He was +36 on the court—just as Towns and Dieng were—and controlled the game all 23 minutes he played.

He ran the show like usual. Death, taxes, and Ricky Rubio running the show at Target Center. You know what? I think it’s time for a quick cliche: Some things never change!

At one point, Thibs rage quit Dunn from the game—like when you’re playing 2K against the computer and can’t get anything to work and become so irritated you just turn off the console—after a rough stretch of play from the rookie. He screamed “RICKY” towards the bench at the top of his lungs. He was so mad. The dissatisfaction with Dunn—he struggled with his shot selection and decision making yet again on his way to an 0-5 night from the field and zero points—was palpable. You could feel his trust in Ricky grow.

“What we’re building here is something that’s going to carry on during the season, so we’re really locked in,” Rubio said. “I think we did a pretty good job. Playing when you have that kind of lead, it’s hard to play especially in the last quarter. They went small and they switched a lot. We’ve got to take this game, a lot of good notes, especially on defense. I think we’re playing much, much better and that’s the way to win games.”

Brandon Rush (+33 as the starting small forward in place of Wiggins) looked like the veteran floor-spacer this team desperately needed after last season concluded. He only went 1-4 from deep but he added five assists, his decision making was good, and you could feel the gravity he provides on offense. Wing defenders can’t cheat down on Towns or Dieng in the paint or in the mid-post as much with Rush on the court.

“We had a great game today,” Towns said. “We played great defense, had a great offensive scheme. The flow was great, the ball movement was great. Defensively we were rotating the way we need to. It’s just great to see improvements, but we still have a long way to go.”

“I liked the readiness of the team and that included everybody. I thought the concentration was good,” Thibodeau said. But he was also quite unhappy—and rightfully so—with the way the reserves played in the fourth quarter as they were outscored 37-10. Thibs didn’t sit down on the bench once. Instead, he angrily patrolled the sidelines pleading his team to execute on both ends of the floor with a bevy of inspirational bad words.

“We’ve got to play tough with the lead,” Thibs said afterwards. “We still have to learn that part of it, to never let our guard down. The hard thing in a game like that is if you relax just a little bit and they get on a run and all of a sudden they get confidence, now it’s hard to turn them off. That’s an area we’re going to have to get a lot better in.”

Notes/Quotes

  • With 25 points in the first half, Karl-Anthony Towns became one of seven Wolves players to score 25+ points in a first half (preseason, regular, and postseason). Towns joins Michael Beasley, Corey Brewer, Randy Foye, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Love and Wally Szczerbiak. #NeverForget
  • Towns’ 17 made and attempted free throws is the most by any NBA player this preseason. Minnesota’s single game regular season record for free throws without a miss is 16 (2x, MR: Michael Williams on Apr. 7, 1993 vs. Indiana).
  • Gorgui Dieng notched his first double-double of the preseason with highs in both points (19) and rebounds (11).
  • Minnesota held Memphis to 57 points on 21-59 shooting (35.6) through three quarters. The Wolves entered the night ranked eighth in the league in opponents points per game during the preseason. That’s what we call #ThibsDust
  • 34 made free throws tonight carried the team and also helped make up for that ugly 3-22 performance from three-point land.

Pre-game Notes

Minnesota head coach Tom Thibodeau on what he saw out of Kris Dunn on the road trip:

“I think, for most rookies, there is an adjustment period. There were some positives in terms of his defense, pushing the ball up the floor and getting into the paint. He is still adjusting to the speed and quickness and size of the NBA game, but each game he is improving.”

On Dunn having the body of an NBA defender:

“He’s NBA ready defensively. He has great size, quickness, anticipation, he can read the ball well, so he has done a really solid job there.”

Memphis head coach David Fizdale on Thibodeau in Minnesota:

“It was an unbelievable hire. To me, he’s one of the best in the league. He and I, I was an assistant in Miami when we had all of those battles, Chicago (vs.) Miami battles. An incredible amount of respect. When we see each other it’s obviously very cordial and we talk basketball and everything else we could talk about. I just have so much respect for him. I think he’s going to be great for the city, great for these young guys. He’s going to make them into a serious threat in the West.”

On the talent of the young Wolves:

“They have a great young team. When you look at the young teams, they are probably the elite of the young teams. And you put an incredible coach like Tom at the helm, who is going to hold them accountable, discipline them, make them play basketball the right way, they’re going to be a tough, tough team to play.”