The Minnesota Timberwolves lost their third straight preseason outing to the Milwaukee Bucks, 125-107. The game was not aired on TV anywhere, but provided some new points of data for a Timberwolves squad that continues to develop on its own, even with the spectre of Jimmy Butler trade rumors hanging over it.
Rather than a traditional recap, here are five things worth knowing from the action of Sunday night’s game.
Josh Okogie started and played well
Okogie’s role was made obvious after the team announced that Derrick Rose would sit out this game (rest), with the Wolves’ lack of depth at the wing well known. While his impact was minimal on the scoring end with just four points on 1-of-7 shooting, his effort and drive made its own story with eight rebounds, three assists and a steal.
“My focus was just trying to make sure I focus on my matchup and try to defensive rebound, and I think I was able to get a couple stops,” Okogie said after the game. “I think we were great defensively during certain stretches. I just tried to bring energy and get as many stops as possible.”
Okogie’s statement about certain stretches of great defense may look weird with 127 points to Milwaukee’s credit, but the Timberwolves’ starting five with Okogie had its moments of excellence. The lineup seemed to fit together well, although the absurd skill of Karl-Anthony Towns helped tremendously to hold it together.
Towns looks ready for the regular season and was dominant
Part of Towns’ statistical outburst must be credited to the matchups Milwaukee threw at him, but there’s no denying 33 points on 11-of-19 shooting — 2 of 3 from deep, 9 of 10 from the free-throw line — and 12 rebounds in just 28 minutes. Towns was utterly dominant for most of the time that he was on the floor.
However, the big man brought his usual dose of reality to the postgame comments. “It doesn’t matter, it’s more about the team and being on the same page as the team,” Towns said. “Defensively, we gave up too many 3s. They improved themselves from last year, they shoot more 3s from last year, they got better shooting. We have to be able to adjust.”
Towns wasn’t wrong about the 3s.
Milwaukee won the game by 18 points and would have won by many more had it converted more than 13 of its 36 attempts from deep — many of which were wide open. One of the main maladies of the porous Timberwolves defense of 2017-18 looked like it was still ailing the team.
The Timberwolves need more time to adjust (and need their final roster to do so)
The Bucks took control of this game in no small part due to errors and miscommunication from the Timberwolves on offense — usually one of their saving graces. Andrew Wiggins and Tyus Jones both had four turnovers and Anthony Tolliver and Jeff Teague had three each as a part of 21 total turnovers.
“You can tell the teams who got together over the summer,” Teague said afterward. “I think those guys spent a lot of time together over the summer, you can tell. We didn’t see each other until the season started, so we got a little more time to get right, but we’ve got to hurry up.”
The unspoken implication to any comment like this is that it will be impossible for a Timberwolves team that remains a work in progress to improve to regular season readiness without the completion of a Butler trade.
More reports came on Sunday morning about the proposed package with Miami, but nothing is done.
As with any preseason game, the numbers (both good and bad) may have strange context
The decisive portion of Sunday’s game was early in the second quarter, when Milwaukee went on a run to push the lead to double digits. What may not be as obvious is that the run was made with their five starters playing against five players from an already weakened Timberwolves bench.
Keita Bates-Diop eventually had a fine game, with some solid scoring efforts in the fourth quarter and flashes of his potential. Bates-Diop also absolutely cannot guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is fine, but also means that there will be more than a few points given up. The plus-minus numbers of the Timberwolves’ five primary bench players, while atrocious, deserve this context.
The Timberwolves chipped away at the lead when they had the reverse matchups, with their five starters against five Milwaukee bench players, but the defense wasn’t as airtight as it needed to be to truly balance things out. The Bucks’ lead was only seven points at halftime, but the game’s finish was never really in doubt.
Not that Towns didn’t create his own problems for Milwaukee’s bench lineups. John Henson fouled out of the game with 3:14 to go in the third quarter because he just could not do anything to stop Towns. Antetokounmpo and Towns were each others’ best matchups, and against most other options, both were unstoppable.
Whatever the context, the defense still wasn’t right and isn’t close, and the offense wasn’t enough
The Timberwolves gave up 33 points in the first quarter and 127 on the night. Sure, there were moments where Milwaukee’s scoring was slightly more guaranteed, but the missed coverages on 3s doomed them just as much as the turnovers.
The 3-point disparity also rears its head on the Timberwolves’ side, as it has so often during Tom Thibodeau’s tenure. Minnesota finished the game 8 of 22 from distance, but was just 3 of 8 at halftime, with two of the makes from Towns. Wiggins attempted no 3s on the night. Okogie and Jones were both 0 for 3.
There’s not an easy fix to this. The Wolves started the second half with Anthony Tolliver in the starting lineup instead of Taj Gibson, which in theory gives the starters more threat from deep. However, Tolliver got left behind on defense numerous times while the Bucks opened the half on a 9-0 run.
As Teague said, “We got a little more time to get right, but we’ve got to hurry up.” The Wolves see Milwaukee again in Wisconsin on Friday for their final preseason game, and the mystery of who will still play for the team by Friday matters almost more than the schemes and team that currently exists.
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