Because Marc Gasol and Mike Conley were “resting,” the Memphis Grizzlies provided the Minnesota Timberwolves with an easy 116-80 win. Even so, the gimme game was a good indication of just how Tom Thibodeau wants his team to play.
The idea was to employ lots of cuts, combo screens and hand-offs in half-court sets, but since the Wolves constantly pushed the ball, these situations were rare. And occasionally the set-up offense was stagnant.
When the break wasn’t available, the fall-back plan was to get the ball either to Karl-Anthony Towns or Andrew Wiggins.
Towns was 4-10 with 10 rebounds, four assists, three turnovers and 11 points. An OK stat line, but he repeatedly forced shots, foolishly tried to go coast-to-coast and looked to be heavy-legged.
Wiggins wanted to go baseline when he was isolated on the left side — 6-11 (2-2 from downtown), four assists, three turnovers, 17 points. He’s quick with the ball and is comfortable shooting treys, but it’s a rare game when he has more assists than TOs.
Zach LaVine was Minnesota’s go-to scorer — 11-18 (5-9) for 31 points. He’s a catch-and-shoot and drive-and-pull guy who usually gets to the rim only on the run.
Early on, Wolves’ two best players were Gorgui Dieng and blue-chip rookie Kris Dunn.
Dieng is a terrific stand-still shooter — 8-9 for 17 points — and moves well without the ball, but has a shaky handle. Plus, he was clearly weary by the middle of the third quarter.
Dunn is another accurate set-shooter — 3-6 (2-3) for 10 points. He did register six assists, but showed the normal hesitation and confusion for a rookie so early in the season.
Overall, the Wolves shot an impressive 55.8 percent, with fastbreak and early offense scores inflating this stat. Nor were they hesitant to launch treys — 12-20. Indeed, the short-handed Grizzlies offered little resistance at the downhill end of the court.
No surprise that this is the most emphasized part of Thibodeau’s game plan. And it was Dieng (three steals) and Dunn (five steals) who led the way.
Dunn has incredibly quick hands and feet, terrific instincts and anticipation, but is sometimes too eager to block shots so he can get caught in the popcorn machine. There’s definitely an All-Defensive team honor in his future.
The Wolves challenged virtually every bounce, every pass, every catch and every shot. They pushed baseline, jammed the middle, but were also lively in closing out three-point shooters by throwing a hand at the ball and flying past the shooter’s off hand. As a result, Memphis was only 4-23 from beyond the arc.
Weak-side screens were usually topped. Depending on the offensive players involved, strong-side screens were dealt with by fighting through, going under or (most often) switching. LaVine and Towns were the most negligent Wolves in helping on high screens.
Whatever the strategy, the Grizzlies’ screen-and-roll attack wasn’t very productive.
There were, however, some flaws in Minnesota’s defense. Dive cutters were routinely open, and drop passes led to several easy layups — mainly because the weak-side/baseline help was often late or non-existent.
In fact, their perimeter defense was better than their interior defense. And what amounted to the Grizzlies’ junior varsity shot only 36.1 percent.
THE BIG PICTURE
Thibs certainly has the right idea in relying on his defense to create enough offense to win a good share of games. The half-court offense, though, does need to be refined.
The Wolves are young and new to their coach’s system but, if they can avoid injuries, maintain their intensity and continue to evolve, they will come up with some surprising wins as the season unfolds.