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Timberwolves 119, Suns 108: Starting Unit Carries Wolves

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The Timberwolves received little help from the bench unit in Sunday’s 119-108 win over the Suns.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves bench unit was widely considered the worst in the NBA in 2016-17, and it was one of Tom Thibodeau’s top priorities in the offseason.

The bench has improved slightly over last season, thanks in large part to the addition of Jamal Crawford and the improvement of Nemanja Bjelica. However, Minnesota does not have the depth to hold up in the event of an injury.

That became clear on Sunday as the Wolves defeated the Suns 119-108 without Jeff Teague or Bjelica. Teague’s absence lifted Tyus Jones to the starting role while Aaron Brooks took Jones’ place in the second unit.

The +/- numbers tell the story of this game as the Timberwolves starters all finished at +13 or better while each bench contributor was no better than -6.

Jones put together arguably the most impressive all-around performance for Minnesota, recording a game-best +22 to go with nine points (on 3-for-6 shooting), seven assists, seven steals (!), four rebounds and zero turnovers. It’s exactly the kind of performance this group needs from the point guard position.

Jimmy Butler set the tone early for the Wolves after his controversial comments following Friday’s loss to Miami. He made five of six shot attempts for 10 points in the first quarter to go with two steals. Defensively, Butler rattled Phoenix rookie phenom Josh Jackson early and often. Jackson played just 23 minutes due to foul trouble and finished 2-for-10 from the floor.

Karl-Anthony Towns (32 points on 12-for-26 shooting) and Andrew Wiggins (8-for-18) added to Minnesota’s offensive punch. The former Rookies of the Year also combined to make six of 12 three-point attempts. Towns added 12 rebounds for an NBA-leading 16th double-double this season. Taj Gibson also added a double-double with 16 points and 14 rebounds and provided much-needed toughness against Tyson Chandler and Co. in the paint.

Phoenix got an unexpected burst off the bench from backup point guard Mike James, who scored 26 points on 10-for-20 shooting. James took advantage of his matchup with Brooks and settled into a groove early and eventually became the pulse of the Suns offense with Devin Booker sitting out.

Minnesota’s defensive concerns, which Butler astutely pointed out following Friday’s loss to the Heat, weren’t completely resolved on Sunday. The Suns shot over 50 percent from the floor (43-for-85) and made 13 of 26 tries from beyond the three-point arc. The Suns generally created their open looks as a result of penetration by James followed by ball movement and late rotations by the Wolves.

Offensively, the Wolves started to look for more three-point opportunities as the game went on instead of actively seeking out the inefficient long two-point tries. Thibodeau’s Wolves have been among the least frequent three-point shooting teams in the league over the past two years.

Sunday’s win for the Timberwolves isn’t necessarily an adamant response to the ugly loss on Friday, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. Beating inferior teams with relative ease has been a problem for the Wolves for most of the season — and the Wolves did that on Sunday.

Through 20 games, there are two ways to look at these Minnesota Timberwolves. A pessimist would point to the negative tendencies of this team and suggest that it’s unlikely the Wolves can keep up a winning record with this many weaknesses. The optimist would say that it can only be a good thing that the Wolves are still winning games despite the plenty of room for improvement in several areas, which will only get better as the season wears on.

Whether you’re a pessimist or an optimist, the Wolves are now 12-8 and in a tie for fourth in the Western Conference. That’s a fact, and it’s a pretty fun statement to write as a fact.

Extra Notes

  • Tyus Jones needs more minutes with the starting unit. Period. His decisiveness and basketball IQ are exactly what the starting group needs on offense.
  • The Suns made their big run late in the first quarter and early in the second quarter when they actively created a bunch of three-point chances while the Wolves apparently tried not to shoot threes. Interesting how that works.
  • Gorgui Dieng provided the biggest boost for the Wolves off the bench. He picked up some big defensive stops and worked his patented two-man game offensively with Crawford, Jones and Butler to create good scoring chances.
  • The bench would appreciate it dearly if Bjelica and Teague returned immediately. Signed, the bench.