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Grizzlies 102, Timberwolves 98: Hot start not enough as Wolves drop opener

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After a 20-3 run to open their season, the Wolves let the Grizzlies back into the game and the veteran team hit the key shots down the stretch to take the game away.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Everything looked so perfect five minutes into the first game of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2016-17 season. They walked into the Memphis Grizzlies’ house and threatened to run them straight out of the gym, opening up a 20-3 lead built on solid defense, forced turnovers and smart, team basketball on offense. Everything was going perfectly according to plan.

Then reality happened, the Grizzlies came to the game, and that 17-point lead vanished by halftime. The Wolves stayed in the game throughout the second half, but key shots from Mike Conley and misses and mistakes from the young Wolves finished them off as they dropped their season opener, 102-98.

One hopes that the season more resembles the first five minutes of the game than the latter 43. “We were playing the exact game plan we wanted coming in,” Karl-Anthony Towns said after the game. “We were playing defense at a high level, we were playing very quick, the way we wanted to play. Pace was great.”

Coach Tom Thibodeau focused on discipline after the game as the key breaking point that shifted in the Grizzlies’ favor. “We need more discipline. We’re recklessly fouling. We put them to the line, the free throws hurt us in the third quarter, and then the rebounding got us down the stretch,” Thibodeau said.

There were a couple of obvious problems on the stat sheet as well, one of them being very familiar to Wolves fans. The Grizzlies, who have been near the Wolves as one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league, punished defensive lapses with 11-24 shooting from outside. Conley’s 4-5 led the way, and his jumper with 24 seconds left pushed the lead to five and essentially sealed the game. Conley led the Grizzlies with 24 points on the night.

Towns was second on the Wolves with five attempts from beyond the arc (only Zach LaVine had more with six, and no other Wolves took more than one). “It’s something I’ve been given the green light to do this year,” Towns said. “It’s not something I want to do, it’s not something I try to shoot all threes and no twos, but if it’s open and given to me and the defense sags off, I’m definitely going to shoot it.”

The Wolves finished just 6-18 from behind the arc, but a much more glaring mistake was from the charity stripe. The Wolves shot 79.2% from the line as a team last season, good for fourth in the NBA, but tonight were just 18-27, including two big misses from Andrew Wiggins with 1:13 left. Had he made both, the Wolves would have taken a one point lead, and perhaps the end of the game would have been different.

Wiggins carried the offensive load for Minnesota with a game-high 25 points, and added seven rebounds. He dragged the Wolves back into the lead after Memphis’ first significant lead in the third quarter with three straight baskets, and had a physical battle with Vince Carter on defense throughout the fourth. “Coach trusts me to make plays and help the team, make shots when shots are needed,” Wiggins said of his role after the game.

The showpiece battle throughout was on the interior, as Towns and Gorgui Dieng dueled with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Randolph’s first appearance off the bench drew one of the loudest cheers of the night inside the FedExForum, and there was nothing the crowd loved quite as much as Z-Bo bullying his way to a basket or ripping a rebound away from three Wolves. His 19 points and 11 rebounds were a huge key to Memphis taking control in the second half.

Dieng didn’t have a shabby night himself, with 12 points and a game-high 14 rebounds, but neither he nor Cole Aldrich enjoyed the physical battle with the two skilled Grizzlies big men, and even Towns struggled at times, getting rejected strongly by JaMychal Green late in the game and getting a taste of his own medicine when first Gasol, then Randolph stepped back for three pointers in the first half.

“This is a hard loss, but we gotta learn from these games. Early on, our swagger was through the roof, and this humbles us a little. This is a game we didn’t want but we kind of needed,” Towns said afterwards. This was a tremendous test for the young Wolves, a close, grit’n’grind road game in a hostile arena, which was loudly critical of the refereeing for much of the game. It was also a game that, had they executed properly, they would have won.

Other Notes

  • Kris Dunn’s first NBA game was also his best that I’ve seen. He was tenacious on defense and dealt admirably with the challenge of guarding Conley, and was smart on offense, taking easy shots when he could find them, such as his first NBA basket, an easy baseline dunk. His eight points and four rebounds don’t say much, but his efficient 4-6 shooting and hard work on defense are both excellent starting points to his NBA career.
  • Much credit should be given to the lineup of Dunn, Shabazz Muhammad, Brandon Rush, Dieng and Aldrich, which started the fourth quarter and kept the Wolves close through Z-Bo’s onslaught. It gave the key trio of Rubio, Towns and Wiggins important time on the bench to rest, and although the Wolves didn’t finish the game, this loss does not fall on the weakness of their bench.
  • Speaking of rest, in Thibodeau’s first regular season game, no player played more than 36:29 (Towns), and the starters were all on the floor between 33 and 36 minutes, staggered throughout with bench players. Dieng and LaVine sat early in the third quarter, but played important minutes with the bench early in the fourth quarter, and the full starting lineup didn’t re-enter until the under-6 timeout.
  • Thibodeau also did some interesting matchups in end-of-quarter situations in the first and second quarter, with the first quarter ending with a Rubio-Dunn guard pairing (for only the final thirty seconds), and the second ending with all of Rubio, LaVine and Dunn on the floor (for the final defensive possession). I was surprised Thibodeau didn’t insert either of Nemanja Bjelica or Rush for the final few possessions when the Wolves clearly needed threes.
  • The Wolves travel next to Sacramento for their second game of the season on Saturday before welcoming these same Grizzlies to Target Center for their home opener on Tuesday, November 1.