I’m sure that I wasn’t the only person giddy with excitement for the Minnesota Timberwolves to begin their preseason campaign in Abu Dhabi this past week. There were many reasons up and down the roster to be anxious for games to begin; the latest free agent signings, skill improvement of young players and style of offense between different lineups all come to mind as important talking points.
We’re going to cover all of those items and more with a look inside the two Wolves wins over the Dallas Mavericks.
In case you missed them, you can read our recaps, which contain all the highlights:
I’m a sucker for the finer details of skills utilized and decisions made on the basketball court. Dissecting actions, anticipating mismatch hunts, those kinds of things. We’ll get to all of that below.
But the big picture for the Timberwolves offense that was 23rd in the NBA in points per 100 possessions a season ago is this: they have very little time nor money to spend on forcing stuff. Syncing up Rudy Gobert as a half-court threat can’t take 55 games to get right again. Drawing sets to spring-load Anthony Edwards at full speed toward the basket has to happen now, not later. Karl-Anthony Towns has to kick his offensive foul bug early in the game.
Through 96 minutes of offshore preseason hoops, there’s reason for optimism. Let’s get after it and show you why.
Setting the Tone From The Tipoff
If you read Wolves Twitter or consume articles and podcasts about the team, odds are you’re aware of the ongoing discourse and disconnect between the skills of some players fitting Head Coach Chris Finch’s style of play. Finch prefers a freewheeling, ball movement-centric offense that follows the flow of the advantage — not a stuffy, structured halfcourt identity. It seems he’s found somewhat of a sweet spot to blend the two approaches, especially on opening possessions.
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Here’s the first play the Timberwolves ran in Game 1 against the Mavericks. Without Edwards in the lineup, Finch gives Jaden McDaniels a couple of screens to navigate for a catch: a curl off of Mike Conley and then an exit screen from Gobert. Towns decides to play back to the direction the ball came from, a viable alternative to the original goal of the set.
Dallas is a switch-heavy team on the perimeter, so Towns working for a mismatch on Kyrie Irving is no surprise. Often he’d stick a leg into Irving’s base and post up from 20 feet, but he quickly pops into shooting position and lets a beautiful three-pointer fly over the late-recovering Irving.
I love the outside shooting aggression from Towns — it’s something he alluded to keeping after launching a bunch of them in the FIBA World Cup (46% of his shot attempts there were from beyond the arc). In an extremely small sample size from 2022-23, Towns shot 47.4% on 19 pick-and-pop treys, per Synergy. It’s a logical play type for KAT, especially while Gobert is occupying the block.
Now the opening possession of Game 2. Edwards returns to the lineup and Finch calls his number immediately. Towns sets a quick screen for Conley and dives hard to the paint to clear things out while Gobert cleans up Josh Green in the corner, allowing Ant to explode into a catch on the run.
This is the kind of action I felt the Wolves were too late to the party on last season. One of the most explosive athletes in the NBA being paired with one of the best screen-setters should be off-ball nirvana. It helps to have one of the best simple passers in the game at point guard to deliver the goods, no doubt, but Ant is too strong and fast to not be utilized in this manner, getting downhill and either pulling up on a dime for a jumper or fearlessly meeting the front of the rim.
Here he draws the eyes and shoulders of Luka Dončić and impressively kicks to Nickeil Alexander-Walker for a catch-and-shoot 3-point attempt. Nothing to criticize there! A good decision.
If you run a successful set play and come back with the same action again, the defense will be smart enough to deny the option you just executed. That’s where having another skilled player loaded as the secondary option can be absolutely lethal.
The very next time the Wolves get the ball, they go back to the same look. Green, anticipating another curl cut from Edwards, slides under the Gobert screen. Ant reads his defender and “fades” the screen, stepping back beyond the arc to get space.
Seeing the ball swing back to Edwards, Gobert sets a baseline exit screen for Towns, who once again dove to the block after his high screen for Conley. Grant Williams turns his head for a split second and that’s all the delay Karl needed to bury a triple in the strong side corner.
This is as purposeful and schematic a half-court series as we’ve seen from the core iteration of the Timberwolves.
Double Drag Concept
A classic move for teams deploying two bigs has always been the “double drag” screen. A high ball screen involving both big men, usually with one rolling to the basket and one popping to the arc, it puts pressure on the ball-handler’s defender to fight through two obstacles while both screen defenders have to be ready for a pop or a roll.
We saw it put to solid use early last season, the first glimpse of what could be a nice high-low partnership between Gobert and Towns. Now that Naz Reid is a guaranteed member of the rotation — and likely receiving most of his important minutes at power forward — we’ll probably be seeing even more double drag than before. Naz is a fun piece to mess with on this concept, most effectively against teams that switch screens.
Gobert rolls hard on the first screen and Reid pops. As soon as he realizes Seth Curry has to recover to him, he sprints to the paint to seal him off for a post-up. Gobert is lounging in the opposite dunker spot, and he gets paid off when Dereck Lively II has to protect the rim from Reid’s spin move; Naz dishes to Rudy for a big dunk as Lively commits.
The options are pretty endless for the Wolves in double drag with big men who are as versatile and skilled as Reid and Towns. Their continued evolution as threats off the bounce and inside attention-getters only makes the guys around them, including Gobert, even better.
Playmakers at the “Point”
Kyle Anderson, for as indispensable as he was last season, didn’t have his greatest outings against the Mavericks this week. But we did see one of the more common past setups for him to make the right pass against a collapsing defense: a variation of the “Point” series.
I’m a Princeton offense guy. The “Point” action is my favorite in basketball. Historically, it involves the center flashing to the elbow and reading a series of screens, cuts and handoffs from the perimeter players. Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox run a lot of Point in their dribble handoff offense. Check out one of the many YouTube breakdowns on Point here.
Back to the clip. The Wolves love putting Slow-Mo in the middle of the floor to dissect over-helping defenders, especially after rotating some players around with dummy movement to get them ball-watching. Kyle gets the drop-off pass at the top of the key, and instead of playing a dribble handoff game with another perimeter player, Gobert follows him up the lane for a ball screen in tight space.
Rudy’s roll gravity is undefeated. Maxi Kleber commits hard to tag Gobert at the rim, so Anderson jump-skips the ball to Naz Reid in the opposite corner. The Mavs are late to “X-out” on him and all it takes is two decisive dribbles for Reid to throw down a reverse jam.
If we are to see more Kyle Anderson at de facto point guard in this big-wing, two-big lineup, expect a lot of this action.
Shake Milton was a surprise signing for the Wolves during free agency. The former Philadelphia 76er had seen a variety of roles on a perennial playoff team, and we were all excited to see exactly what we’d get out of his game here. So far, things are looking really nice.
There were (and still are) questions about who the backup point guard is on the roster behind 35-year-old Mike Conley. Milton got some solid run at the position against Dallas next to another supersized playmaker in Kyle Anderson, and he already seems to have strong connectivity and anticipation with his pick-and-roll partners.
There’s nothing fancy here — a simple high ball screen from Towns gets Milton pulling the defense to one side. Attacking drop coverage is a win for the sixth-year guard, who shot 47.6% from 16-22 feet last season, per Basketball-Reference. He has the chops to pull up and bury the jumper, but his pocket passing was accurate and efficient to his rollers, like Towns heading full speed to the rim for a bucket.
The next instance is a beautiful example of spatial awareness and vision to see the next pass. Kyle Anderson’s screen forces an awkward blind switching situation for Mavs rookie Olivier-Maxence Prosper, who tries to recover back to Slow-Mo without looking. Milton drops a perfect bounce pass to the open space that Kyle is about to occupy. Dwight Powell rotates to make up for Prosper’s tardiness and Anderson finds a cutting Towns for the basket.
Shake had the third-highest assist percentage on the Sixers last season at 22.3%, behind only James Harden and Joel Embiid. He can create plenty for others and he’ll get ample opportunity to do so on the second unit. He’s just one of the many professionals that Minnesota filled their bench with, in hopes of finding a consistent and deep playoff rotation that they were lacking last season.
Yes, this is preseason basketball. The regular rotation played about a half in each game. The results mean little. But there is something different about this team in the big picture already — they’re healthy, rested, prepared and focused. Nothing is being wasted on the floor. The Timberwolves can’t afford to watch days go by without having a purpose. Abu Dhabi has been a step in the right direction on that front.