The Minnesota Timberwolves returned home on Saturday night to play the Jimmy Butler-less Miami Heat looking to put on a show for the Target Center crowd and atone for a disappointing 97-94 season-opening loss to the Toronto Raptors.
Butler sat out of the contest along with Haywood Highsmith (left knee sprain), Kevin Love (left shoulder contusion, Caleb Martin (left knee tendinosis) and Josh Richardson (right heel inflammation) on the heels of the Heat’s 119-111 loss to the Boston Celtics in Beantown on Friday night.
General Soreness has not played in Minneapolis since Anthony Edwards threw down one of the best in-game dunks in the history of the NBA:
...and brushed off Butler’s in-game antics that clearly didn’t move the 22-year-old All-Star.
Anthony Edwards on Jimmy Butler walking up to him last night:— Da Sport Central (@dasportcentral) November 25, 2021
“He ain’t finna fight nobody… that’s stuff for the birds.” pic.twitter.com/hsI2gTbYLp
Like they did for much of last season, the Timberwolves started slow in a game in which they were heavy favorites (-8.5). Minnesota didn’t create their own energy, but instead reverted to the stagnant offense and limited effort we saw in the season opener.
After trailing 14-6 in the early going, the Wolves responded with an 8-0 run behind a pair of triples from Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns, and aggressive play from Mike Conley, who looked to score coming off screens from Rudy Gobert. Miami led 19-16 when Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch went to his bench. After Towns’ scoring aggression and rim protection popped at the 5 in the first game, Finch opted for Towns over Gobert in at the 5 in the back half of the first frame, but it didn’t work as well; KAT didn’t score as well, but the spacing he brings provided Kyle Anderson, Naz Reid and Edwards with more room to work, and the Wolves converted enough looks to keep it within five at the end of the first, 31-26. A key part of that was the Wolves’ defensive discipline, committing just one foul and not allowing a free throw in the opening quarter.
The Timberwolves opened the second quarter with a couple of ugly miscommunication turnovers that show just how far the second unit has to go with their chemistry, but rebounded nicely with a unit of Conley, new acquisitions Shake Milton and Troy Brown Jr., Reid and Gobert. That group moved the ball much better and created open looks consistently, helping to establish a rhythm against the Heat’s zone defense that the next crew took advantage of.
Towns and especially Anderson were terrific at finding the soft spots in the heart of the zone in the middle of the second quarter, which drove highly efficient offense. After recording just four assists in the first frame, the Wolves responded with 12 in the second quarter mostly against zone defenses that often grounded their ball movement to a halt last season. That led to a tremendous 21 bench points, with Reid and Anderson combining for 16 points on 7/9 shooting, and a very solid 29 overall points in the quarter on 13/22 shooting (59.1%), resulting in a 55-53 lead entering the break.
That offensive ball movement came out of the locker room with the Timberwolves to start the third quarter, even though the team’s quality of shotmaking a season ago wasn’t there to match it.
Because of that, Finch placed an emphasis on defense and kept Gobert in the game to anchor a very stout Timberwolves half-court defense that drove the team’s play in the third quarter. The Heat didn’t really challenge Gobert in the paint, instead opting for contested mid-range and 3-point jumpers. When Miami did attack off the catch, the Wolves communicated well, contained the ball on drives, and still were able to contest corner kicks; most importantly, the team finished off possessions with rebounds they turned into transition opportunities the other way.
Offensively, Minnesota returned to the well, playing through Anderson and Towns again in the half-court. As a result of that, the ball continued to find Reid, who attacked mismatches on the lower outside portions of the zone, moved the ball and was active defensively. After a relatively quiet night, Towns scored a pair of loud buckets late in the third to firmly take control of the momentum and give the Timberwolves an 80-73 lead heading into the final frame.
Naz Reid and Rudy Gobert took it from there.
The Wolves played through their star reserve on the block and in the pick-and-roll, before Reid got hot from beyond the arc.
NAZ REID COMING THRUUUU pic.twitter.com/0M8V66SEV6— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) October 29, 2023
Reid scored the team’s first 11 points of the quarter en route to to becoming the first Wolves player to ever score at least 25 points off the bench in a home opener. The scoring explosion from Reid included a personal 9-0 run that ballooned the lead from three up to 12 and essentially won Minnesota the game. He went on to finish with a game-high 25 points on 10/14 shooting, to go along with eight rebounds.
“I mean, I’m trying to put my imprint on every game, whether it’s hustling, scoring, rebounds or diving on the floor, whatever the case may be,” Reid said postgame. “I’m always trying to seize an opportunity to put my imprints on the game and help us win in any way, shape or form.”
Gobert held it down on the other end of the floor by completely dominating his matchup with Bam Adebayo and flying around to contest shots on the perimeter. His excellent contest on a Tyler Herro 3-point attempt directly led to this banger from Reid, resulting in a Heat timeout and “Naz Reid! Naz Reid! Naz Reid!” chants from the Target Center crowd.
The Stifle Tower added a pair of boards on both ends, punctuated by a huge put-back slam. Gobert finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds in what was an excellent showcase of how he can be a legitimate star in his role, much like he was as a member of the Utah Jazz.
“Just impacting the game. Every possession, whether it’s offense or defense and obviously defensively, to me the goal is just being the best defender in the world,” Gobert said when asked about where he’s seeing the benefits of feeling better physically. “That’s what I’ve been in the past and I know that’s who I am.”
Gobert’s efforts were the driving force behind the Timberwolves holding the Heat to just 37 points on 13/42 shooting (31.0%) in the second half.
Minnesota rode the wave from there, tacking on a trio of jump shots from Edwards to cruise to 106-90 victory in the home opener.
Things peaked in the midst of a 24-4 Wolves run, after the lead got as high as 23, when the Target Center crowd erupted with “WHERE IS JIM-MY?” chants that ultimately earned the respect of Butler, who blew kisses to the crowd in enjoyment.
T-Wolves fans were chanting "Where is Jimmy?" to Jimmy Butler— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 29, 2023
He blew kisses back at them pic.twitter.com/lPfdda2Y4d
Where do I even start? Naz Reid has delivered a ton of tremendous performances as a member of the Wolves, but his Saturday night showing is up there with the best of them, because of the way it underscored how seamlessly he has transitioned into playing the 4. To play a different position in your fifth season in the NBA — after spending the first four playing for your career and carving out a role at the highest level — is an incredibly difficult thing to do, especially when you consider the dramatic physical transformation that Reid needed to make as a young player. That hunger and work ethic was ‘absolutely’ a reason the Timberwolves wanted to re-sign him, Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch said postgame.
“He’s a guy that will continue, whether it was his body early and then finding his game and then his confidence. He’s a worker. He loves to be here in town throughout the summer. He’s always in the gym. Those guys do a great job and put a lot of emphasis on guarding for him this year and rebounding, just those things, too. The non-sexy things that nobody wants to work on that stuff in the summer, but he put the work in.”
“It’s really a testament to what a great summer can do for you,” Finch added. “He’s got a lot of confidence. He’s taking his time when he gets a mismatch, not rushing it. He’s chasing shooters around the floor. These were all things that were kinda new that we needed him to do and continue to do for him to be successful in this role with the way that our roster is.
“I thought his defense tonight, particularly chasing and guarding and being up and being impactful, it was awesome. And his rebounding has taken another leap. Fun to watch him play, for sure.”
Reid on Saturday was at times tasked with chasing shooters in Herro and Duncan Robinson
Conley was effusive in his praise of the 24-year-old big man in the locker room.
“Naz is the best, man. Honestly, I’m just happy for him. The love that he’s getting from the fans, the love that we show him as a team, you can tell the work he’s put in, and the results are starting to show and come together for him. He’s going to be huge for us, as he always has been and we’re excited for him to continue to grow.”
The 17-year NBA veteran didn’t stop there, following it up with a profound statement:
“He’s one of my favorite guys that I’ve been able to play with as a teammate, just in general. The way he approaches the game – on the court he’s easy to play with because he just moves and the ball is always just going somewhere and he doesn’t really think too much as far as what to do with it. He just dribble, shoot, pass, he’s going right to it. Those guys are really fun to be around. And he’s just a good teammate and a heckuva player.”
That last part is equally important in all of this, and a key reason why the New Jersey native is so passionately adored by the Timberwolves fanbase. Not only does he throw down highlight dunks, make timely 3s, play the game the right way, or possess a seemingly endless desire to improve. He is also as tough of a competitor as there is, always willing to fight through nicks, bumps, bruises and injuries to leave everything he has on the floor no matter the opponent or circumstances. Combine all that with the kindness and fun-loving energy he brings every day, and an in-on-the-joke demeanor, and you get a fan favorite.
The Timberwolves for the home opener held pregame introductions for each player on the roster, and Reid received by far the loudest uproar of any player — Edwards included. The Target Center crowd followed that up with “I <3 NAZ” signs and “NAZ REID” chants, which certainly caught his attention.
“I mean, (it’s) amazing. Especially at this level, it’s something that you dream of. You never can really imagine something that special. I appreciate every single person that was able to do that for me.”
*honks infinitely* pic.twitter.com/B1c8Dccr4T— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) October 29, 2023
It’s early, I know, but the Naz Reid Sixth Man of the Year campaign is well underway and certainly a subplot that we’ll be following all year long.
A Healthy Rudy Gobert is a Dominant One
There is no questioning that Rudy Gobert was not 100% for the majority — if not all of — last season, coming off an extremely physical EuroBasket tournament that took up most of his 2022 summer. As a result, we only saw glimpses of the player that the Timberwolves unloaded a haul of draft picks and role players to acquire. But on Saturday night, Gobert showed he is finally fully healthy, and as a result exactly why he is such an enticing force, one capable of completely carrying a defense while filling in the gaps offensively and playing within himself.
Gobert didn’t block any shots or force many turnovers. But he made everything difficult, which is the staple of half-court defenses he anchors. After he led the Wolves to a terrific half-court defensive rating of 97.0 (89th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass), his presence and effort was the primary factor a 91.8 half-court DRTG mark on Saturday (96th percentile). The Saint-Quentin, France native prevented Bam Adebayo from catching the ball deep in the paint, turned nearly every jumper the Heat All-Star took into a difficult one, flew around to contest shots on the perimeter when the Miami ball movement forced switches and scrambles, and convinced Heat players not to drive simply by standing in the paint. To top it off, Gobert was still a factor on the glass, corralling 14 rebounds (10 defensive, four offensive).
“Yeah, I think he’s in great shape. I think the summertime really helped him, playing that stretch with [Team France in the World Cup] really prepped him for the season, got his mind and body right,” Conley, a longtime Gobert teammate, said postgame. “He’s contesting more, he’s dunking more, he’s just being more physical, and we’re going to need that from him. That’s what he’s here for and what everybody expects out of him.”
The Wolves won the night 58-38 in the paint and 47-42 on the glass, surely reflective of Gobert’s efforts on both ends of the floor. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year isn’t satisfied, though, adding ‘there’s no reason’ the Timberwolves can’t be the best defensive team in the NBA.
Say what you want about the Wolves' offense. Their HC defense is *ELITE*— Canis Hoopus (@canishoopus) October 29, 2023
“We have size. We have guys that can move their feet. We have guys that are dogs, competitors. Those three things, you put them together, why wouldn’t want us to be the best defensive team in the league with all those weapons,” he said. “You got to strive for that and you add to that the offensive weapons we have and the mix between young guys, experienced guys and guys in their primes, I think it’s a really unique team that we have and we’ll keep working every day to maximize that.”
The identity of this team undoubtedly starts on the defensive end of the floor. Beyond Gobert playing tremendous defense, Towns has played as well as he can defensively while Rudy sits, and the team looks increasingly more comfortable communicating and rotating. After we saw it in the season opener, the Timberwolves once again on Saturday showed that their defense is good enough to keep them in every game, no matter how poorly they play offensively.
Minnesota through two games is 27th in field goal percentage (41.9%), 23rd in 3-point shooting (30.8%) and 28th in free throw attempts (18 per game). The Timberwolves last season were third (49.0%), 13th (36.5%) and 16th (23.7) in those categories. Despite that, they very easily could’ve won the previous game in Toronto because of their defense, and they still held a lead on Saturday before their offense caught up to their defense in the fourth quarter. It is amazing what a second-ranked defense (94.0 DRTG) can do for a team.
If Gobert is able to stay healthy and the Wolves can subsequently sustain this elite level of defense, Minnesota will be a very tough out in the playoffs come the spring.
The Wolves will travel to A on Sunday for an Anthony Edwards homecoming matchup with Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks on Monday. Fans can watch the 6:30 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North. After that, Minnesota will return home for a four-game homestand starting on Wednesday against the defending champion Denver Nuggets.