Still as committed to defense and as hard-nosed as ever, Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau nonetheless opens this season with a team ready to play at a pace faster than you might expect.
Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls teams had league MVP Derrick Rose with which to attack, but they mostly won big with their defensive grit and a certain deliberateness.
If you watched the Wolves’ preseason opener against the Los Angeles Lakers or portions of their two games against Golden State in China, you might have grown sweaty simply by the way they pushed the ball.
“Obviously we are who we are with the foundation of who Thibs is,” Wolves veteran guard Jamal Crawford said. “But we definitely will play faster. We’ll play up and down. We have the speed to do it. We have the athletes to do it.”
Crawford then clicked off a partial list of players that included everyone from new point guard Jeff Teague and three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler to reserves Shabazz Muhammad and Tyus Jones.
He included himself, of course, as well.
“With Teague pushing the ball like he does, Jimmy can push it out, I can push it out,” Crawford said. “We have a lot of key components to do that.”
Teague considers his own speed and all the talent around him and sees a team that will average between 107 and 110 points. That would move the Wolves’ offense from 105.6 points a game — 13th in the league last season — possibly into the NBA’s top five, approaching such teams as Golden State, Houston, Denver and Cleveland.
Of course, strictly scoring points doesn’t guarantee victory or a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
“That being said, we can’t give up that many,” said Teague, whose team ended preseason play with a 140-110 loss to the Warriors. “But I expect us to score a lot of points.”
Both Crawford and Teague say Thibodeau wants this Wolves team to push the ball in the open court and look for easy baskets.
“He’s encouraging us to get up and push it,” Crawford said. “That’s the way the league is. It’s hard to score on a set defense. So if we can get as many easy baskets as possible, that’s good for us.”
Thibodeau himself, of course, says pace and points scored aren’t the objective.
“The big thing is efficiency,” he said. “That’s what you’re striving for. A lot of the teams that are high in pace are very low in efficiency. You want to have that balance. You look at the teams that win consistently — of course, Golden State is probably the exception to that — you want to have balance. That’s the most important thing. I’m more concerned with the efficiency than the pace.”
Thibodeau traded starting point guard Ricky Rubio this summer and signed Teague to a three-year, $57 million free-agent contract in large part because of his speed, his quickness and his ability to break down opposing defenses by getting into the lane and toward the rim.
“I’m going to push the ball, that’s what I do,” Teague said. “I’m not a walk-the-ball-up kind of guy. I’ve never been that guy. I’m going to play to my strengths.”
Teague’s gifted teammates hope to do the same, and that means push the ball and pressure opposing defenses.
“We’re going to have to,” Teague said. “We have a lot of guys who can score, so we’re going to have to get up and down and get some shots up and play at a faster pace for that … I know [Thibodeau] is a smash-mouth kind of guy, but I’ve never played like that. I think him bringing me here, he knew that and I think our guys have the ability to get up and down.
“That’s how we need to play. The more shots we can get, the better. We just have to lock down defensively.”
In order to run, a team must stop the opposition and create turnovers, which in turn leads to opportunities in the open court.
And, of course, now that’s speaking Thibodeau’s language.
When asked how his coach might respond to a team the coach himself built more for offense than defense, Teague said, “That’s a good question. You have to ask him. I’m sure he’d rather have it 101-90, but as long as we win, I think he’ll be happy.”