It wasn’t the most visually appealing, nor was it always the most fun to watch. Still, the Minnesota Timberwolves advanced to 2-0 on the young season Saturday night by grinding out a 96-89 win against the New Orleans Pelicans. The Wolves posted a defensive rating of less than 100 in each of their victories, a feat they accomplished only seven times during the 2020-21 campaign.
However, the win over the Pelicans was equally due to luck as stringing together stops on defense. New Orleans missed several wide-open jumpers — 17, to be exact, and 19 that NBA.com considered open — and converted only nine of their 40 3-point attempts. They also out-rebounded the Wolves 61-47 and were more efficient at turning turnovers into points (1.25 points per turnover versus 0.70).
The Pelicans shot 8-for-36 (22.2%) on 3-pointers last night that where characterized as open or wide-open by https://t.co/fZDsDD7MU0.— Lucas Seehafer (@seehafer_) October 25, 2021
And yet, the Wolves still gutted out the grimy game and came out on top in a 50-50 contest that previous iterations of the team frequently dropped.
“[The win] just shows how resilient we can be,” Wolves point guard Jordan McLaughlin — who played every minute of the fourth quarter and finished the night with a plus/minus of +5 — told Canis Hoopus following the game. “We’ve said since Day One; we have literally one through 15 guys on the roster that can play at a high level, night in and night out. So we have a really deep team, and every night we just got to bring it and just withstand the punches and just keep rolling with them and just try to overcome them in the end.”
The ability to absorb punches and not immediately cave in is something the Wolves have struggled with in the past. Karl-Anthony Towns would let his emotions get the best of him, leading to erratic play. Andrew Wiggins would go AWOL. The energy from the bench would be non-existent, and fans would cheer louder for the opportunity to snag a slingshot launched free t-shirt than for a made bucket. The result was a mountain of losses that left only the belief in the Wolves lower than the team’s morale.
Once again, things felt different on Saturday night. Towns fouled out and still released outbursts of ill-advised emotion while D’Angelo Russell “forgot how to play basketball” for large stretches of the game; however, the difference was that Towns’ teammates were there this time to pick him up.
McLaughlin provided a much-needed sense of calm and control when it looked like the Pelicans were well on their way to stealing a win. Anthony Edwards was a rebound away from a double-double and a game-high +10. Josh Okogie, Jaden McDaniels, and Jarred Vanderbilt combined to pulldown 19 boards and forced five steals to go along with two blocks.
The Wolves were vastly outsized by New Orleans and will be by opposing teams on most nights. However, they weren’t afraid to get physical and punch back after being socked. Towns — literally, at times — wrestled with Jonas Valanciunas on the block all evening and Okogie, McDaniels, Vanderbilt, and Patrick Beverley took turns walling up Brandon Ingram, Devonte’ Graham, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
The Wolves’ overall toughness has been something that has caught head coach Chris Finch’s eye since the start of camp.
“I’ve liked our toughness since Day One. We’ve got tough guys,” Finch told Canis Hoopus. “They’ve been competing. We don’t have the biggest team in the league in terms of our size or strength or what have you, but they fight, and they fight for each other. Even when they’re getting out-rebounded out there, it wasn’t a lack of effort.”
The Wolves hope to turn their newfound grit, resiliency, and physicality into a long-term identity.
“I like the physicality we play with, and when you’re building an identity, obviously, we don’t have one, to be very honest. But if you want to build one, it’s going to take some time,” Towns told various members of the media. “We try to be physical defensively, especially. If we’re going to get a little foul here or there over physicality and building our identity and our culture, then that has to be what it is.”
Two games of culture do not an identity make, but two games sure are better than nothing.