The 2017-18 Wolves no longer appear to be the group of undisciplined and pubescent hoopers of years past. Saturday evenings win over the Los Angeles Lakers suggested this Wolves squad might actually be quite the opposite. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of Butler, Gibson, Teague, Towns, and Wiggins up against a Lakers starting lineup of players who are 24-years-old or younger but the Wolves played with an air of maturity that said, “We’ve been here before.”
Unsurprisingly, Jimmy Butler led the way. Despite only playing in the first quarter — due to rest, not injury — it was clear this is Jimmy’s team. Wolves fans remember the days of leadership duties handed to Tayshaun Prince, Corey Brewer, or Dante Cunningham but tonight it was simply refreshing to see the team’s veteran leader be someone who is actually good at basketball.
In addition to Butler, the first quarter also featured the other new additions to the starting lineup. Not only did Taj Gibson get the start after ambiguity whether he or Gorgui Dieng would start alongside Towns but Gibson scored the first point of the season.
Jeff Teague was maybe the most impressive of the three new Wolves starters. From the start, Teague was there to assure that, without Ricky Rubio, everything will be okay in the backcourt. Simply put: Teague is a very different point guard than Rubio.
The first actual bucket of the game came on a play that illustrated the difference in the two guards. While Gibson probed in the post, Teague lined himself up above the break for the kick out. Teague was given space and upon the catch, he pulled with confidence.
It is fair to say that is a shot Rubio would have been unlikely to take let alone convert. Last season, of the 60 three-pointers Rubio made 57 were without a defender within four feet of him, per NBA.com/stats.
While the notion that Rubio unilaterally could not shoot threes was wrong the type of threes he shot did have almost always the commonality of being “open.” This will not be the case with Teague, give him any space while he is in rhythm and the shot is going up.
While the starting lineup showed some real synergy, the minutes the bench players received were a bit of an adventure. The first reserve to check in was Dieng. After starting all 82 games last season, this was new to Dieng and he struggled. His at times awkward play was not necessarily due to the bench role but he would do well to find some of the chemistry he had with Zach LaVine. At this point, Dieng’s partner in crime off the bench this season remains vague.
Shabazz Muhammad and Tyus Jones were the first reserves off the bench after Dieng. Indicating, as expected, that Muhammad will have a key role as a bench wing. Jones’ entrance into the game before Aaron Brooks — who did not check in until the third quarter — was a bit of a surprise. Jones may not have the backup point guard job locked down as playing over Brooks could easily have been a product of familiarity. Brooks has only been with the team for a week.
Overall, the defense of the bench (much like last season) was bad. Too many times the Lakers set a screen and a wide-open look immediately presented itself. Muhammad continues to live in his habit of being hyper-focused on his man and his man alone. Muhammad needs to not only see the floor better than he did but also communicate with his teammates.
After the Wolves pumped their lead up to nearly 20 points in the third quarter, they let Lonzo Ball and crew back into the game. Ball, himself, only scored five total points but inserted eight assists and seven rebounds into the stat sheet. Largely, his play was uninspiring and it appears that creating his own shot outside of simply pulling from deep will be a journey for him this season. Ball is a metaphor of sorts for what this Lakers team will be — talented but a bit lost.
Overall, the Wolves not only looked to be the more mature of the two teams but far superior from a skill perspective. Had the Wolves played their starters real minutes this game would not have been close. And even with Butler playing only twelve minutes and 24 total points from Towns and Wiggins the game still wasn’t all that close. If the goal of the evening was to acclimate Butler, Gibson, and Teague, then, mission accomplished.
- Taj Gibson, who made three total three-pointers last season, was 2-for-2 on corner threes.
- Nemanja Bjelica’s broken foot appears to have healed as he played 20 minutes.
- Cole Aldrich was the only player with a guaranteed contract to play zero minutes. Aldrich is unlikely to be anywhere near the rotation this season.
- 37-year-old Jamal Crawford led the team in minutes but failed to score a point. His one field goal attempt also failed to draw the rim.
- The Wolves hopped on a flight to China immediately following the game. The team’s next game is Thursday against the Golden State Warriors and will be broadcasted live at 1 am CST on Fox Sports North.