ANAHEIM, CALIF. – The newly remade Timberwolves made their preseason debut with Saturday’s 108-99 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers at Anaheim’s Honda Center and in doing so might have answered the big question about their new rotation: Who’s going to start at power forward?
Veteran Taj Gibson started Saturday alongside center Karl-Anthony Towns and small forward Andrew Wiggins in a combination that seemed destined since Wolves coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau signed Gibson, who played for him five seasons in Chicago, as a free agent last summer.
Gibson’s presence there over incumbent Gorgui Dieng gives the Wolves a more mobile defender who can counter the smaller lineup so prevalent in the NBA these days and gives Thibodeau more comfort that his team can effectively switch coverage on pick-and-roll plays at the shooting-guard, small-forward and power-forward positions.
Gibson also turned stretch power forward Saturday, making both corner three-point shots he attempted. It’s a shot he said he’s added to his game after working on it all summer.
“I like the quickness, particularly with teams that are going small,” Thibodeau said after the game and just before the team flew to China for two preseason games with Golden State. “It gives us quicker reaction to the ball. It allows us to do more switching.”
It also moves Dieng to his more natural center position after he started last season at power forward beside Towns. And it creates playing time as a backup power forward for Nemanja Bjelica, who played 20 minutes Saturday in his first game back after he broke a bone in his foot last March.
“I like Gorgui with the second group; he complements Bjelly well,” Thibodeau said. “… We’ll mix and match, depending who we’re playing against and if they have two bigs on the floor.”
Dieng delivered an efficient 14-point, 12-rebound double-double while still playing 27 minutes off the bench when Thibodeau carefully measured minutes for Towns, Wiggins and Jimmy Butler. Reserve Shabazz Muhammad led all teammates in both scoring (22) and playing time (29:38)
“I like the versatility of this team,” Thibodeau said. “I can move Bazz to the ‘4.’ I can move Jimmy to the ‘4.’ So we can go small, or we can go big. I like that. That’s the thing about Taj: He gives us flexibility.”
A new role
Dieng started all 82 games last season but said after Saturday’s game he has no issues coming off the bench instead.
“Not at all,” Dieng said. “… We have good players. Everybody wants to have this problem. Every coach is going to have a problem to decide who he wants to start or not to. We have a good basketball team, so it’s up to us to just try to win games.
“Worry about winning games and not who’s going to start or not.”
Butler did it
By design, Butler played the entire first quarter and then sat the rest of the night, helping Thibodeau coach from the bench.
“He’s a much better player,” Thibodeau said wryly. “That was good. I like the way they started off the game. They were good on both ends.”
Butler scored 10 points — 4-for-5 from free-throw line — in those 12 minutes while Towns played 21 minutes (15 points on 3-for-3 shooting on threes, 6 rebounds) and Wiggins 26 ½ minutes (9 points on 3-for-12 shooting from the field, 3 rebounds, 3 steals).
Veteran point guard Jeff Teague approached a double-double with a 12-point, 9-assist night in nearly 24 minutes and threw nice alley-oop passes to Gibson and Butler for dunks in his Wolves’ debut.
“I thought Jeff was very good,” Thibodeau said. “He makes the game easy. He gets the ball away quick and he has great vision. He’s really good offensively and I think he can be great defensively, too.”
Thibodeau on Muhammad’s play: “Well, I’ve been telling you guys from the start of camp. It was good to see it translated over to the game. But he has been playing like that every day in camp. He has had a great camp.”
And on Gibson’s 2-for-2 shooting on threes: “He has been doing it all week, and he worked on it all summer.”