Let’s start here: The Minnesota Timberwolves have some time to figure things out. Maybe that’s why D’Angelo Russell didn’t want to set expectations to start the season. He was coy about everything from his chemistry with Rudy Gobert to his thoughts about how the Wolves would compete in the Western Conference. If he didn’t offer his projections, there would be nothing that anyone could hold against him at the end of the season, he figured.
So how did he feel after Minnesota’s 115-108 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder?
“This group has a lot of work to do,” Russell admitted. “From our first game, from our preseason game, just getting out there and just feeling each other out, I think that’s the first step. Every game is going to look different, I feel like. As soon as we can get in the habit of understanding that every game is gonna look different, the better we’ll be. We’ll see what our identity is going to form into.”
Fortunately, the Timberwolves have a pretty easy schedule to start the season. Some of Minnesota’s shortcomings were also predictable, given the change they implemented in the offseason. The Wolves were sloppy, but they haven’t practiced much together yet. They are also developing chemistry.
“Happy with the win, of course,” Chris Finch concluded. “Some good stretches. Some less-than-ideal ones. Good one to build on.
“Same thing we say all the time. We stayed in our flow, got a lot of really good shots. We kind of slowed down unnecessarily so in the third. But even so, we missed a lot of wide-open shots, too, at that point in time. We just kind of got outcompeted on the glass (OKC out-rebounded them 57-55). That’s not a good thing. We got to find ways to be more physical. Every way the game allows you to be more physical, we got to find those ways to do that. We haven’t been a very physical team yet.”
Unfortunately, some sins from the past also crept into the game. Minnesota held a 65-52 lead at halftime, but they fell apart in the third quarter. The Target Center crowd, subdued for much of the game, loudly booed Finch when he chose not to call a timeout down the stretch in the third. The Wolves had four timeouts at the time and watched as Oklahoma City took the lead. Gobert’s long floater tied it 87-87, but things got too close for comfort entering the final frame.
“It’s the first time we had a little adversity,” said Russell. “Another example is going to be trying to finish the game. The game might come down to the last wire, and we might have to get that stop. We haven’t seen those scenarios yet, so every game’s going to be a test and a challenge for us. Just buying into what coach is saying and buying into our coverages, I think we’ll be prepared.”
A game that the Wolves looked like they were going to sleepwalk through became interesting after 36 minutes. Outside of the opening introductions, which featured the signature important game flamethrowers behind the baskets, the crowd seemed disengaged. Part of it is that they built a lead quickly in the first half. Then it suddenly got tense in the third quarter. But something was lacking throughout most of the game. Nobody could hit a three in the third. Anthony Edwards wasn’t his electric self. Russell occasionally had trouble connecting with Gobert.
“We feel like we’ve got to get better, obviously,” admitted Jaylen Nowell, who had 13 points in 18 minutes and provided a valuable spark off the bench. “It’s literally our first regular season game, and we know with time, we’ll see what other guys’ tendencies are. And I think once that happens, we’ll get way better offensively and defensively.”
Gobert gave the crowd a scare when he went down in pain, grabbing his knee just before halftime. Had the $38 million Frenchman, who the Wolves traded five players and five picks for, suffered a severe injury? Would his season be over shortly after he was on the receiving end of seven Towns assists that helped build a substantial lead in the first half? Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. Gobert played the rest of the game and had 23 points in 34 minutes.
“I bumped knees with someone and just a bruise,” he said nonchalantly after the game. “So, it’s just a little sore, but I think I’ll be fine. It happens a lot. I got to wear this knee brace; bring it back because little guys just keep running into my knees, trying to box me out.”
Everyone watching this team should have reasonable expectations heading into the season. Towns was sick in the preseason, and Gobert was recovering after playing EuroBasket. They only played one game together before opening night. Fortunately, they also have a runway to get things going. They play the Utah Jazz, OKC again, the San Antonio Spurs twice, the Los Angeles Lakers, and San Antonio again in their next six games. Depending on how you feel about the Lakers, that’s a pretty manageable early schedule.
Offensively, the Wolves improved dramatically from their last preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets. They were sloppy, but the offense flowed at times – at least in the first half. It was imperfect but effective. It slowed dramatically in the third, but they could punch through when it mattered in the fourth. They also have some work to do defensively. Oklahoma City had multiple open looks at three but frequently missed. They also left open lanes that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander took advantage of, and Edwards quickly racked up five fouls.
Ultimately, they won ugly. Their first game was uninspiring, even though they won. But that’s fine, so long as they come closer to reaching thier potential once they have to face tougher opponents. That may be the formula early in the season – pick up the wins, improve meaningfully between games, and get ready for the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks in November.