The Timberwolves starting lineup, with three new players, has been a chemistry experiment from Day 1, as players get used to each other and get to know each of their individual talents.
Same with the bench.
Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson are the Wolves’ new starters. New to the bench are former starter Gorgui Dieng and Jamal Crawford.
Things appear to be coming together. Last season, with less depth forcing more minutes onto the starters, the Timberwolves ranked dead last in the league in points off the bench (22.8). Through Sunday’s game the Wolves were 21st in bench scoring at 31.1. But, in the three games before Sunday’s game with Charlotte, that number grew to 37.7 points, which puts Minnesota in the middle of the NBA pack.
That number should keep growing.
Reserves played 45 minutes Wednesday in Minnesota’s victory at New Orleans. In Saturday’s victory over Dallas the number was 31. But, while the reserves struggled a bit to start the fourth quarter, they earlier helped put distance between the Wolves and the Mavericks in the first half. Coach Tom Thibodeau starting going to his bench with 2:55 left in the first quarter and the Wolves up six. By the time the starters returned with less than six minutes left in the second quarter, the lead had grown to 16.
“They are executing well,’’ Thibodeau said. “When the bench plays well, we’re going to be tough to beat.’’
Crawford said it’s just a matter of time. “We’re learning what sets are good for us, and we’re bringing energy,’’ he said. “We’re learning to play off each other.’’
The added depth has given Thibodeau a lot more options.
“We have versatility,’’ he said. “That’s what I like. Depending on how the game is unfolding, I feel there is an answer on the bench. If we want to downsize, speed it up, or if we want to match up with somebody [the other team] has, we have guys.”
Part of that bench success is Nemanja Bjelica. Over the season’s opening weeks, the 6-10 forward from Serbia has been the league’s most proficient three-point shooter.
Bjelica, who hit at least one three-pointer in each of the first nine games, currently sits as the league leader in three-point shooting percentage (62.5 percent).
“We see it every day,’’ Thibodeau said. “We see it in practice, we see it in the games. He’s in a great rhythm. And it opens the floor for us.”
Said Bjelica: “I feel really good. Really good. I’m just trying to play, to do my job. I like the second unit we have this year. We share the ball. This is to our advantage.”
In his third NBA season, Bjelica is averaging a career-high 8.2 points despite averaging a career-low 15.5 minutes. “It’s not so easy,” he said. “But we are winning. We’re happy.”
Thibodeau said Bjelica will play more as the second unit continues to improve.
After being held to a season-low two points in the victory over the Pelicans, center Karl-Anthony Towns responded with 31 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks Saturday vs. Dallas. It was his 121st career double-double in 173 career games played.
“You didn’t see me smile once,” said Towns, who was limited by foul trouble in New Orleans. “It was business.”
Towns has now scored in double figures in 163 of 174 games. Starting midway through his rookie season to now, Towns has scored 10 or more points in 131 of 133 games.