Defense and depth has carried the Wolves to start the season
MINNEAPOLIS — A stationary bike sits pushed back to the left of the Wolves bench next to media row. The bike is used to help players stay loose when they’re not on the floor, but over the years not many guys ride it. Aside from point guard D’Angelo Russell using it when subbed out, the bike typically goes unoccupied. Tonight, though, Jordan McLaughlin sat and rode the bike off and on throughout the first three quarters. The team’s third point guard, behind D’Lo and Patrick Beverley, has been battling a groin injury and one could reasonably assume he was doing his best to stay ready for action if head coach Chris Finch decided to call his number.
Up 69-67 heading into the fourth, after getting blitzed by New Orleans 26-15 in the third, Finch made his chess move. He called for McLaughlin off the bench. As Tom Thibodeau always used to say, “the game tells you what to do,” and even if the game only ever screamed to Thibs what he was already dead set on, that old motto once again cut through the noise and rang through my head. The game tells you what to do. And on this particular night, as Russell was having an especially bad evening full of mistakes, the game was calling—or maybe even howling for—a certain point guard to jump off that bike and give his squad the jumpstart they were dying for.
The third-string point guard behind D’Lo and Patrick Beverley completely changed the game. With J-Mac running the uptempo action with quick-hitting transition buckets in the ideal vision of his coaching staff, the Wolves suddenly flipped a switch. They punched the Pelicans right back with a 10-0 uppercut to take control before D’Lo finally found that ice in his veins with two clutch treys in crunch time. Russell’s abysmal night (12 points on 14 shots with 7 turnovers) shouldn’t go without criticism, but he proved once again that closing time is his time to send opponents home. “I just forgot how to play basketball, honestly,” said Russell. Good thing he remembered just in time to win.
McLaughlin’s modest 6 points, 2 steals, 2 rebound showing won’t catch the eye of the casual box score viewer, but he was in fact a total game-changer. J-Mac prides himself on always being ready whenever his moment comes. From a two-way contract to a three-year deal, it’s nights like tonight that must taste so sweet for the team’s “11th man.”
“All credit to J-Mac,” Finch said. “He stayed ready the whole game and he was really the difference-maker in a lot of ways. He got us going out there on the offensive end.
“For me, it’s just staying ready,” said McLaughlin. “My whole life I’ve had to be ready for my opportunity or for our team’s opportunity and I just go out there and try to win the game. Whether that’s scoring, playmaking, defense, whatever I got to do to help this team win that’s what I’m all about.”
Russell spoke about how the rhythm and timing changed when McLaughlin finally came in after a night on the bench and bike. “Huge, huge, huge,” Russell relayed to the press. “It makes it easy for a coach to have that many players you can rotate in throughout the rotation and, you know, bring that spark. And when we needed it most, [J-Mac] brought it. I don’t want that to go unnoticed.”
Karl-Anthony Towns led the team in scoring with 25 points, as he usually does, shooting 10-of-20 with four rebounds, three blocks, and two assists. This was his 172nd career 25+ point outing but foul trouble once again overshadowed an otherwise very strong performance. Towns battled the beastly Jonas Valanciunas, standing his ground pound for pound in the paint, fighting hard for position, and beating JV with his fast first step off the dribble throughout. An offensive foul call at the 6:36 mark in the 4th was Towns’ sixth and final of the night, followed by frustration and a technical. But Jonas is a tough, battle-tested behemoth and Karl played like a BIG KAT.
Along with Russell and Finch, Towns also praised the Wolves’ third point guard.
“I mean, shoutout to JMac. I gotta say this. Chucky Anthony, my right-hand man, that’s his favorite player on the team, so shout out to his favorite player. I mean, every time he comes on the court, he just shows exactly what he can do. He’s a constant professional. He’s always ready for the moment and we always seem to be throwing him in the most intense moments in the game, but he always finds a way to get it done so he’s such a vital part of our team. I think that our bench is going to be the reason we make this playoff run or not.”
A 96-89 win over the Pelicans on Saturday night to start 2-0 on the season was mostly about defense, though in the process they showed some real grit that should inspire those playoff dreams. They have strong depth and one incredibly wise coach who knows when to press the right buttons. A team that has relied heavily on offensive output for wins over many years finally pivoted to a rare defensive-oriented victory.
“Defense has carried us the last two games,” said Finch. “I think that’s a great step for this team. That’s what we set out to do. We just have to augment it with the other end.”
The man of the hour J-Mac talks after Finchy and DLo/KAT all praise his 12 minutes (all in the 4th) off the bench pic.twitter.com/MIFqeyDhEy
— John Meyer (@meyerNBA) October 24, 2021
Depth was a key talking point after the win. “We have a lot of guys that can make plays,” said Russell. “Everybody felt they had to step up. Naz [Reid] was ready. He held the paint down defensively. We all have to be ready and have that step-up mentality whenever anybody goes out or goes down.” McLaughlin concurred. “We’re buying into what we have going here,” he said. “We know we have a deep roster and everybody has a voice on this team. We’re all able to talk, listen to each other, and apply what we’re saying.”
D’Angelo Russell postgame comments. “I just forgot how to play basketball, honestly.” Says tonight was good adversity for the Wolves to face. pic.twitter.com/m1rTAfUOuB
— John Meyer (@meyerNBA) October 24, 2021
“We’re still figuring it out as a team,” Russell concluded in his availability, which was a sentiment Towns shared. As J-Mac noted in his postgame comments, it’s also always much better to learn while winning than learning in losing. There’s almost no doubt that prior Wolves teams would’ve found a way to squander a game exactly like this one, and there’s progress in that. There’s also growth, as Towns discussed, in winning a gritty low-scoring affair with defense.
“It’s really good to say. I feel like for my years here we’ve always relied on how many points we can score in one night,” said Towns. “These are the kind of nights when you need to fall back on something else. Our offense wasn’t clicking the way we would like it to but our defense was and it gave us a chance.”
One of the questions that lingered after the final buzzer was whether or not it’s better to grind out a win like this early in the season, almost to open everyone’s eyes to what’s possible both good and bad.
“I liked this,” said Towns. “I was just saying on the bench, this is the first game the starters have played in the 4th quarter [this season]. … You could see, for us, the jitters are getting out. We shot a little short on jumpers that we’re usually making easily all game. Free throws we missed that we usually don’t miss. It’s something that happens. We haven’t had a fourth quarter yet. I think this was a great growing game for us, especially the starters, and also with me in foul trouble and fouling out. It put us in a different predicament we haven’t been in yet as a team. I thought we did a really good job. For me, my hope is not to be putting my teammates in that kind of position again.”
Anthony Edwards contributed 19 points, a team-high nine rebounds and five assists, his ninth 15+point/5+ rebound/5+ assist career game. His poor shooting night (8-22) was offset a bit by everything else he added to the box score, including a block and steal. Ant was frustrated with a bunch of no-calls at the rim and easily could’ve had 30 points in this one. He was powerful, explosive, and destined for superstardom. In his Wolves’ debut, Patrick Beverley scored five points and dished out a game-high six assists off the bench. He spanked Glen Taylor twice, before and after the game in exuberance. I’m not sure that’s ever happened before. Josh Okogie added five rebounds, three assists, and two steals in 18 minutes. JO was flying around his first two stints of the night but came out cold in the second half and Finch went elsewhere looking for a scoring punch from Malik Beasley and others after the break. Okogie has been masterful defensively early on, though he’s the first guy that’s going to get the hook if they are struggling to score. The Wolves forced a franchise-record 30 turnovers tonight (That’s actually real!!!) but only had 25 points off turnovers, a number KAT said needs to be 1 point per turnover or better if they are playing well in transition.
Wolves held New Orleans to 34.8% (31-89) from the field. During the 2020-21 season, Minnesota held an opponent to 40.0% or less shooting from the field in only six games.
The Wolves connected on 12 triples, their second-straight game with 10+ treys to earn free Beef ‘N Cheddars. Last season, the Wolves registered double-digit triples in 62 of the 72 contests played last season. #FreeArbies. Led by Taurean Prince and Jared Vanderbilt’s three steals apiece, Minnesota had 13 steals, accounting for 10+ steals in back-to-back games. They added 8 blocks and won the STOCKS battle 21 to 15. Along with the rebound column, where they got dominated tonight (61-47), that’s always something to keep an eye out for.
Naz Reid’s 12 points led the bench and the Wolves reserves outscored the Pelicans bench, 36-12. Brandon Ingram led New Orleans with 30 points, six rebounds, and four assists, marking his 28th 30+ point career game. He can get his shot off whenever he wants. A jump ball between him and Jaden McDaniels during this contest must’ve been the skinniest frames and longest arms ever involved in a jump ball. Do not fact-check me. Jonas Valančiūnas notched 20 points and 17 rebounds, accounting for his 22nd 20+ points/15+rebound career game. Towns did a good job fighting JV in the paint but the Wolves are basically always going to struggle with centers like him. They simply can’t move them from their spots. Still, a decent part of his stat line happened without Karl out there. I was impressed with Towns’ strength in the paint.
His thoughts when Karl-Anthony Towns fouled out:
“I’m kind of a roll with it guy. Take them out of the game and the game turns against you and there are only three minutes left to put him back in, then it’s like what have you accomplished? So, I figured I just let it play out and I thought he’d get it the next time down. We’ve stepped up and obviously D’Lo made some big shots and we finally started rebounding.”
On D’Angelo Russell’s late three pointers towards the end of the game:
“Thank God it went in. It looked like it might have the chance to hit the backboard with the trajectory but sometimes you get lucky in those situations. I thought we played well enough, certainly on the defensive end of the floor, the offense we seem to fight the game a little bit but hopefully, that is going to keep coming.”
On how his shot felt in the fourth quarter after a rough night shooting:
“I mean, I had the ball so I just wanted to give my team the chance, you know, do something with it. Shoot it or pass it, like I said, tough, tough night but good, bad, ugly, we got it done. We gotta live with it.”
PELICANS HEAD COACH WILLIE GREEN
On turnovers being correctable errors:
“We are just shooting ourselves in the foot. We have to keep the game simple. Come down, run our offense in transition, keep the game simple. When we do, we get really great shots, quality shots. It’s something we have to continue to teach, continue to talk about, and frankly continue to get better at. If we take care of the basketball, if we get quality shots.”
On the heavy minutes the starters played:
“Well, hopefully, we’re not in this situation where Brandon [Ingram] and Devonte’ [Graham] and Jonas [Valanciunas] and those guys are playing heavy minutes like this on the back-to-back but they wanted to play and we needed them out there in order to give ourselves a chance to win the game. We’ll continue to get better like I said. Our bench will get better. We’ll get healthy. We’ll get guys in the rotation. It’ll help those guys so they are not playing heavy, heavy minutes, especially on the second night of a back-to-back.”
PELICANS GUARD DEVONTE’ GRAHAM
On the 30 turnovers:
“I mean it’s just obvious, you can’t win games like that. So, you keep saying that every game, it’s kind of like beating a dead horse. We were in the game, that’s the crazy part about it. If we cut the turnovers in half, we could be up 15 points. We obviously keep saying the same thing, ‘we gotta take care of the ball, we gotta take care of the ball.’ Until then, we gotta live with our mistakes.”