Before we get started, let’s just get this disclaimer out of the way: YES, tonight’s contest between the Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans was simply a preseason game. Nothing more. Nothing less.
With that said, what the home team displayed in the first 24 minutes of action on Monday night was something fans like you and I have not seen in a very, very long time. Let’s discuss the good and the bad from the team’s preseason opener.
One word: DEFENSE.
If you missed Minnesota’s first preseason action, you missed a collective effort on the defensive end that Wolves fans haven’t seen since the Thibs regime. To kick things off, head coach Chris Finch started Josh Okogie and Jaden McDaniels alongside the usual starting suspects (D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, and Karl-Anthony Towns), and the impact of this more well-rounded lineup was felt literally seconds into the game:
Josh Okogie weak-side block, great defense pic.twitter.com/5AlPXlmHg9— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) October 5, 2021
Seriously, Josh Okogie was everywhere:
Josh Okogie active defense, Wolves playing with great defensive energy pic.twitter.com/78g01Z4CjO— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) October 5, 2021
Minnesota talked about their extra emphasis on the defensive end all throughout training camp, and while that level of intensity is expected from someone like Josh Okogie, it was extremely encouraging to also see it from a player like Anthony Edwards, who mentioned at media day that he planned to prioritize his defense just as much as his offense this season:
This is the play of the game for me so far: Anthony Edwards’ defensive engagement has been notable tonight.pic.twitter.com/66UTSfXLuX— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) October 5, 2021
After one of the training camp practices last week, Chris Finch discussed how “last year, we [the Wolves] tried to fly around and this year we want to fly around with more purpose.” That “purpose” was on full display in the first preseason game, with ANT himself literally flying around all over the court with one specific purpose: get stops.
Anthony Edwards with the block, one of several notable defensive plays from Ant tonight pic.twitter.com/faPpRALXMD— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) October 5, 2021
The defensive highlight of the night for young Anthony Edwards came in transition, with Jaden McDaniels walling up his defender just enough to give ANT time to fly in for the Chase Budinger-like volleyball spike:
Anthony Edwards with an incredible transition block, wow pic.twitter.com/FMDnkSFS5c— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) October 5, 2021
After the game, Chris Finch threw gasoline on the preseason fire that is Anthony Edwards and his improved defense, saying that the latter has been what’s stood out thus far throughout training camp:
Chris Finch says Anthony Edwards has been having a really good camp — and that “his defense has been better than his offense”.— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) October 5, 2021
While the defensive highlights came fast and furious, the truly encouraging part for me was that it wasn’t just Josh Okogie OR Anthony Edwards giving 110% on the defensive end. D’Angelo Russell looked extremely engaged on defense, Karl-Anthony Towns appeared to constantly be in the right spot at the right time, and Jaden McDaniels was Jaden McDaniels (Big Mac fouled out in just 13 minutes of play, so I guess you could say he was flying around a little too much).
Even when Chris Finch went to his bench towards the end of the first quarter, guys like Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Jordan McLaughlin were everywhere on defense, which helped fuel Minnesota to out-hustle (and outscore) New Orleans 40-17 in the second quarter.
(Since we are still dealing with the preseason, the second quarter is also when this game recap will abruptly end, since everything after the first 24 minutes was glorified pick-up basketball with a dose of excitement sprinkled in at the end).
As for those first 24 GOOD minutes — it cannot be emphasized enough how fast, connected, and downright jovial the Wolves looked playing together. D’Angelo Russell looks as healthy as he’s ever been in a Timberwolves uniform, Karl-Anthony Towns looked noticeably quicker on the perimeter, and the overall “vibes” from the bench resembled that of a college team on homecoming night.
Overall, while it was definitely a small, SMALL sample size, the biggest takeaway for me from Monday’s preseason home opener is that most of the things we heard throughout training camp were on full display at Target Center: players looked motivated, free of distractions, and appear to be really buying in to the idea that it’ll be their defense — not their offense — that could finally lead this team out of the cellar of the NBA standings.
While there was plenty of “good” to take away from Monday night’s performance, there was also plenty of bad. Minnesota turned the ball over 18 times, committed 26 team fouls, and were out-rebounded by the Pelicans 53-49 (despite New Orleans being without both Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas). The turnovers could simply be a product of learning to play with new teammates, and the fouling is expected from a team “flying around,” but the rebounding issue is definitely going to become a worrisome trend all season for one of the shortest teams in the league.
Outside of all that, Minnesota not only escaped with a victory on Monday, but more importantly they escaped without any reported injuries, which is huge. If this team is going to make any noise in the Western Conference this season, they are going to need their top players to be available as much as possible.
So far, so good.