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Wolves 101, Pacers 91: Defense, Pace, And A Breath Of Fresh Okogie Air

Mistakes were cleaned up, and Okogie offers hope.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Minnesota Timberwolves
Welcome to OKOGIE WORLD.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Not even 136 points could get the job done down in Dallas two days ago. Forget the egregious Dennis Smith push off on Derrick Rose late in the game, the Wolves defense has been an unpleasant mess to begin the new season. Early results, though a small sample size, indicate a long winter of bad pick-and-roll coverage, tons of corner threes, and poor defensive rebounding.

These first few games should be a wake up call for everyone involved, right? Can this team actually defend well enough to consistently win, no matter how strong their offense is?

With the Indiana Pacers in town, it was fair to wonder how many threes Nate McMillan’s squad was going to sink en route to another crooked number on the scoreboard. Instead, the game offered a first half full of bricks from deep. The Wolves defended well, forcing Indiana into quick attempts. The pick-and-roll coverage was sharp and shots were being heavily contested at the rim. In truth, offense is rarely going to be an issue for this team, meaning most games will come down to how well they defend.

Playing in front of an incredibly light crowd for the second home game of the season on Monday night—probably around 7,000 no matter what the official number says—the Wolves had Jimmy Butler back in the lineup. Collectively, they cleaned up many of the issues that plagued them defensively over the first three games.

Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner were held in check and contained all night, to the tune of 36 points on 36 shots. “I gotta do a better job with my shot selection, seeing guys coming, seeing the weak side coming over and stuff like that,” said Oladipo.

“Especially as a leader in my role, I gotta be better in that aspect, in decision making and making the right plays. As well as staying aggressive, that’s what my duty is. My obligation is to have an equal balance of both, making plays and being aggressive, so I gotta watch film and see what they did because teams are going to do that again.”

Bojan Bogdanovic, 20 points on 8-12 shooting, was the only Pacer that really hurt the Wolves. Darren Collison, Thad Young, and Tyreke Evans were an ineffective trio that never found any momentum. Tom Thibodeau was pleased (probably super relieved) after the 10-point win, paced (no pun) by 43 bench points and 26 fastbreak points.

“I thought it was our best overall defensive performance,” said Thibodeau. “Even the first half, we didn’t rebound well but I thought our activity was great. We got a number of deflections. I thought in the second half our rebounding picked up and I thought our stops got us into the open floor and so the attack was good. We had a number of different contributions. Our bench play was terrific in the second half.”

With Andrew Wiggins leaving the game in the first quarter after a right quad contusion, rookie Josh Okogie was the next man up. He didn’t disappoint in 24 minutes of sheer effort, grit, and intensity. While his offense is going to be a work in progress, there is no denying the energy he immediately brings. Teammates seemed to feed off his full-throttle approach to the game. They call him “Nonstop” for a reason.

“I like the way he persevered through it,” Thibs said about Okogie’s play. “I thought the spirit of the team was strong. His teammates were encouraging him to shoot and he just kept playing, which I think is important.”

This was somewhat of a coming out party for Okogie, though his first stint in Dallas was also impressive. Thibodeau will have a difficult time keeping his talents stashed away on the bench for long without facing additional criticism. The film is out there now and Wolves Nation clearly has a hunger that can only be satisfied with MORE JOSH OKOGIE. He recorded his first double-digit scoring effort (12 points on 5-13 shooting) while also swiping a team-high three steals.

There was a moment in the second half when he got switched on to Myles Turner in the post, on the right block, and fronted him like an established veteran wing would do. Indiana could not make the post-entry because of how well he played it. The next possession he hit a slot 3, ultimately ending in a nice ovation for him as he subbed out.

“With a couple of fixes to our rebounding the last couple of games, we could have been 3-0,” Okogie, the first round pick out of Georgia Tech, said at his locker stall after the 101-91 win. “We came into this game knowing we have to be able to pound the glass and control the boards. When Coach put me in late in the first, he told me ‘I need you to go out there and get rebounds’ so my focus coming in was just to help give us the positive edge in the rebounding game. I was able to snag a couple and it just kind of got us going.

From Jimmy to Jeff to Derrick to everybody, just giving me that confidence to go out there. They always have my back. If I miss an assignment or don’t know a play on offense, they’re constantly telling me what to do. It just gives me that confidence to go out and use all my energy and try to get stops. I think we were really active as a team. We talked. We had one of our best talking games this far in the season and I think in the long run, we’re going to be a great team.”

A much improved bench unit was key in the second win of the season (2-2). The reserves went on a 12-0 run to start the fourth, opening up the game and giving the starters a cushion to close out the contest. Gorgui Dieng had nine points and seven rebounds, seemingly revitalized from a season ago. Tyus Jones was a big part of that fourth quarter run, stuffing the box score in 17 minutes (8/4/4/3/1/+10). Broken record: Tyus needs to play more minutes. Rose’s shot selection was quite poor (4-12)—particularly those isolation pull-up jumpers—but the way he’s pushing the tempo after stops is seriously putting pressure on defenses, and mostly leading to good stuff. Thibs needs to reel him back in when it comes to halfcourt offense though. The last play this team needs is another guard settling for 15-20 foot jumpers off the dribble.

“Our job is to give the game what it’s missing,” Rose said afterwards, when asked about the bench unit combining for 43 points. “At this time, it was pushing the ball and rebounding. We’re not worried about scoring, we’re going to score. But if we don’t have any defense, that’s when we’re in trouble.”

Indiana was especially vulnerable in transition. The Wolves’ nine steals allowed them to get off to the races, leading to 26 fast break points, which leads us to the stat of the night: the Wolves have now scored 25+ fast break points in consecutive games for the first time since Dec. 6-8, 2001. While it’s still much too early in the season to say for sure, the coaching staff seems to be encouraging a higher pace of play. Given the roster they have, playing faster seems conducive to success.

In other news, Butler was briefly on FaceTime with Kyle Lowry after the game...

I asked Butler if he would for sure play in Toronto on Wednesday night after telling Lowry he’d see him tomorrow. He was noncommittal at first. “Well, you have to see your boy Kyle [Lowry], right?” Butler proclaimed that I was right. Unless something changes, sounds like he will make the road trip this time after staying back when the team traveled to Dallas this past weekend.

Toronto Raptors fans, of course, are in my mentions getting excited about the prospects of Butler playing for them. That’s certainly a possibility if GM Masai Ujir decides to push the chips all-in for this season with Kawhi Leonard in the fold in the last year of his deal, like Butler is, but Lowry and Butler have also been friends for a long time. So, maybe it doesn’t mean anything more than that.


  • Wolves now stand at .500 on the season (2-2) and 2-0 at home.

  • Karl-Anthony Towns had his first double-double of the season with 17 points and 14 rebounds. Towns recorded a league-high and personal-best 68 double-doubles last season. His 14 rebounds stand as a new season-high and the first time he has reached double-digit rebounds this season. He grabbed 10+ rebounds in all but 13 games during his 2017-18 campaign. More importantly ... he shined on the defensive end, where a majority of the criticism comes from. “I thought that was one of KAT’s best defensive games,” said Thibodeau. “He did a number of great things: challenging shots, making people miss inside, rebounding the ball, getting out quickly. I thought he played a terrific all-around game.”

  • Jimmy Butler led the Wolves in scoring with 20 points on 6-12 shooting from the field. What always impresses me most about Butler’s offense is the way he can get to any spot on the floor that he wants to get to. He’s extremely strong with the ball in his hands. Butler went with his infamous “I love Tyus Jones” postgame route. We saw this a handful of times last season.
  • Jeff Teague recorded a game-high 10 assists, marking his first double-digit assist effort of the season. He only had six points, AND NO DUNKS. He needs one more trey to reach 600 on his career. Please wait for the JFT3 party to be scheduled later this week. Invitations will be sent to your Canis account. (Teague is always an excellent interview because he doesn’t sugarcoat anything and only lies about one thing and one thing only and that is his distaste for dunking.) Chapter 10 of Teague Dunk Trolling me: I discussed the ferocious dunk vs. Cleveland with him and he assured me that it was absolutely his last dunk. *NOW* he’s done forever. I said I didn’t believe him. I told him that he’s probably going to hammer one home in Toronto just to mess with us. He chuckled and did a finger roll in the air with a grin hanging on his face.
  • Taj Gibson added 13 points on 6-7 shooting, tallying his fourth consecutive game shooting above 50% from the field. Mr. Clean is reliable. My guess is that he’s the most well-liked Wolf in the locker room among the entire team.

  • Thibs on the importance of the bench mob: “I think Gorgui is playing at a high level too, which is important for us. We have a number of guys, when you have Tyus, Derrick and Jimmy on the floor and Anthony spacing, G is putting a lot of pressure on the rim. But you’ve got multiple playmakers, so if we get stops and we get out into the open floor, we’re going to get good looks. We’re going to score a ton of points. It comes back to we’re a little undersized, so that’s why it’s so important to get to bodies and react to long rebounds. Our guards have to rebound. When we do that, I think we can be a very good team.”

  • Wiggins said he got treatment during the game, after heading to the locker room hurt, and feels pretty good at the moment. He didn’t seem worried about the quad injury that forced him out and is preparing to play in Toronto. Wigs said he takes pride in playing every single game and would only sit out if he absolutely cannot go under any circumstance.

  • My dad has not watched the last two games. He’s super mad at Thibs. Follow me on Twitter for Dad Recaps.