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Thunder 113, Wolves 101: Preseason Reality Check

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Most people (appropriately) don’t put much stock in preseason results, but this game felt awfully revealing

2018 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot
This was by far the coolest photo in our system. After watching the Wolves look atrocious in their third preseason game, I figured we could use a distraction from the drama. Josh Okogie is going to be a fan favorite.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS — Many NBA fans like to say “it’s just the preseason” when their squad lays a dud in early October before the real action begins.

This is typically an agreeable conclusion; diving too deep into preseason results is often pointless. Most teams want to try new things. Coaches across the league are figuring out what they have to work with and how to maximize strengths. They want to test different lineup combinations. They want to know if the rookies and fringe roster players actually have what it takes to succeed in this unforgiving league. There are countless questions to be answered before the season begins, and the preseason is the perfect time to search for those answers.

These games should be about process and experimentation. Results should take a backseat. The real questions should be larger in scale: Is the team playing a brand of basketball that utilizes each weapon appropriately? Does the offensive and defensive scheme inspire long-term confidence?

But the Wolves don’t have the same luxury as most organizations do given the Jimmy Butler Trade Request hovering over the season. Because of that drama, it’s probably not wise to dismiss this abysmal, low-energy effort showing on Friday in the third preseason game simply because it’s the preseason. That doesn’t feel like the right conclusion at all. The Wolves played like an unfocused team waiting for resolution. In truth, they looked terrible.

While the preseason is the perfect time to be unreasonably optimistic and hopeful, a moment to drink the Kool-Aid before the obvious problems inevitably reveal themselves, they didn’t play with much zest. There was little energy on the hardwood. Instead of being an exciting opening night, ripe with the possibilities that each season brings, the Wolves seemed distracted and lifeless. There was just this weird uncertain vibe surrounding them. They went through the motions lethargically. For that reason, it feels appropriate to give you this link to explore the box score for yourselves. (Here’s the box score.)

All of the issues that popped up last season unfortunately still seem alive and well. An archaic offense reliant on post-ups, long twos, and iso-ball showed up again on Friday night against the Thunder. While more than effective last season (with Jimmy Butler) it’s certainly not easy on the eyes; they take a lot of bad shots that put the defense in a bind. And speaking of the “defense” (rated 27th last season) ... it also looked atrocious, particularly in defending pick-and-rolls and limiting transition opportunities. Nobody boxed out all night, leading to what felt like a million extra possessions for Oklahoma City by way of offensive rebounds (16). Early signs suggest the Wolves could be one of the worst teams on that end of the floor.

“If that’s our approach, [that] it’s just the preseason, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment,” Tom Thibodeau said, almost apathetically, after the 113-101 loss at Target Center. “We’re going to open up in 12 days. There’s a lot of work to do.”

The teams rebounding and overall effort was a cold slap in the face.

“We can’t rely on one or two guys, it’s gotta be a team thing and it is a reflection of your effort and commitment,” said Thibodeau, when asked about the disturbing results on the glass that saw the Thunder punish his team 57-39.

“Right now we’re not containing the ball the way we need to so we’re putting a lot of pressure on our bigs and it requires more than one effort. We’re forced into some switching situations and our smalls are not sinking and getting into bodies. That’s something we have to correct.”

Thibodeau was also asked if there is any justification for the way the team has played over the past two preseason losses. “Our last two practices in LA were very good,” he responded.

“We played poorly in the Clippers game. We had a film session in LA before we flew back, and then we had a shootaround this morning, so it was a quick turnaround. That’s a part of the season. The readiness to play, the first quarter, sets the tone for the game. We have to come out with much more of an edge.”

Should we be surprised by the recent preseason struggles given the dysfunction that lingers? Absolutely not. Until the Wolves finalize a Butler trade, they likely cannot take a positive step forward. That seemed to be the most obvious takeaway during the first home preseason game. His status with the team is a serious distraction.

***

Karl-Anthony Towns spoke about the importance of playing well in the preseason after the loss.

“It’s like you said, it’s preseason but we have to treat these as real games,” said Towns.

“This is not the old school NBA where we get 10 plus games to get ready, we get five this year. We have limited games to go out there and test what we do in practice. We’ve been having great practices and we have to translate it into the games and we played a great team today. We played, you know, we played a really great team and the Bucks and upcoming two games left. We got to show some promise, we got to show the progress we’ve made every single day in practice. We just have to have it happen when it matters the most in game time.”

Was this a good reality check for them? “I think the last game was a good reality check,” said Towns. Favoring his right collarbone throughout the night, often grimacing with pain, Towns was blunt in response to questions about his health. He’s been through worse and this isn’t anything to worry about. He remains optimistic about the season.

“I feel that we have great practices, great players, great attitude in the locker room we just have to go execute on the court. While it’s preseason, it’s important to show glimpses that we’re doing what we’re doing in practices and we have great practices. It’s a thing we have to address you know and get ready for the next two games.”

As for the other key player that needs to step up and carry his weight this season, Andrew Wiggins was basically non-existent in 28 minutes (4 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist).

“The good thing is that it’s just preseason, because we got beat,” said Wiggins. “But you’ve got to realize before we know it, the real season’s going to be here. We’ve got like 12 days before real games start, so we’ve just got to know it’s going to come quicker than we think.

Britt Robson asked Thibs what’s up with Wiggins, because the elephant in the postgame press conference room was the fact that Wiggins didn’t look motivated at all during the entire game.

“When you play like we’re playing right now, no one looks good,” Thibs responded. “I think you get into things together and you get out of things together so we have to sort of circle the wagons and we gotta get it going. We have to do that collectively and I think if you have one or two guys trying to lift the group out by themselves that never works. We have to build a rhythm and cohesiveness as a group and that has to be our focus. We gotta get them going for sure.”

Jon Krawczynsk followed up by asking whether or not it’s alarming to Thibs to be saying these things at this point. “In fairness, there’s usually going to be some bumps in the preseason; it reveals the amount of work that we have to put into this,” said Thibodeau.

“I have great belief in them. You know, we didn’t play well and I wish we could just practice right now but our schedule is not lending itself to that. And that’s good, too, because we can learn from the schedule; that’s what we deal with during the season, that’s our reality. We talked about that opening night.”

As for the defensive woes, Thibs simply said: “The shots that we’re giving up are not the shots we want to give up.”

Afterwards, inside of the mum Wolves locker room, there was one fun moment: first round draft pick Josh Okogie brought his towels over to the employee picking them up from each locker stall. The most polite rookie of all-time? Well, that’s up for debate. But that exchange felt like the best part of an otherwise forgettable first night back inside of a building filled with more questions than answers. Perhaps that’s revealing in itself.