There’s something indisputably different about the air surrounding the Minnesota Timberwolves through four preseason and one regular-season game. Sure, it’s very early in the season, and the team has shown promise in the past only for it to prove fleeting, being destroyed by a seemingly continuous volley of fire and brimstone from on high, some sent by God, others by upper management. But, at the risk of sounding like that one Arrested Development meme, things just feel different this time.
The Wolves — players and coaches alike — preached all preseason about the importance of defense and being locked into the game for a full 48 minutes every night. Their effort was encouraging when the contests didn’t matter and left fans and analysts intrigued by what the team could accomplish come the regular season. Yet, whether or not they would keep that same energy when they did remained to be seen. Well, that is until Wednesday night.
Minnesota ran roughshod over the scraggly Houston Rockets from the jump, headlined by the in-your-shorts defense and neverending limbs of Josh Okogie and Jaden McDaniels. Even Malik Beasley — who’s not exactly known as a lockdown defender — provided numerous defensive highlights.
The combined defensive effort resulted in the Wolves posting a defensive rating below 100 — 98.1, to be exact — an accomplishment they achieved only seven times last year.
“It hasn’t translated, and just because it translated it from practice to preseason, [in] my experience doesn’t mean anything. It hasn’t translated to the regular season,” center Karl-Anthony Towns said of the Wolves’ defense after the game. “So, to have a game like this, first game of the year, tension you know, obviously nerves are high. Everyone’s on a high ‘cause it’s the first game, and they go out there and have the discipline to play the defense we were supposed to be playing speaks volumes on our coaching staff. Installing it, making sure that we understand the importance of it to the players in the locker room. At the end of the day, we have to be more fluid, and those guys in the locker got it done.”
It bears emphasizing that the Rockets are a very young and very bad basketball team. They will not look like an NBA team many nights this season and will likely end up with the best odds for winning the top overall pick next summer. However, the Wolves did what good teams are supposed to do no good, very bad teams, particularly on their home court. They did not come out of halftime with an unearned swagger of superiority as they were wont to do in seasons past. They kept the gas peddle firmly on the floor and ran Houston out of the gym.
One game and four glorified exhibition matches are not a large enough sample to draw firm conclusions. It’s entirely possible that the Wolves return to the Target Center on Saturday evening and lay an egg against the Zion-less New Orleans Pelicans, rendering all positive vibes moot. There is an essential distinction between things feeling different and things being different, after all.
However, the Wolves deserve some props for following up their talk from the preseason with legitimate action on Wednesday evening.
“The culture that we all have to try and build here is something that is special, and it requires every to be active, regardless of if you’re in the starting five, the bench five, or you’re 11 through 14,” Towns told Canis Hoopus. “Everyone has to be engaged into the game and we have to be there for each other. We supposed to be brothers. We gotta act like it. We come in the circle, we say ‘1-2-3, Family’. We got to act like it. This is not something I want to waste my breath on if we’re not gonna act like it. Everyone has to buy in and I think what you’re seeing right now is a whole team, including the staff, buying into the goal and the vision we have.”
Maybe, just maybe, things actually are the way they seem.