The expansion Timberwolves were playing the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City in mid-February 1990. The Wolves had lost 13 straight on the road and the Jazz had won a team-record 13 in a row at home.
Bill Musselman, the Wolves coach, was encountered in the hotel lobby and was asked: “What are you going to do with Karl Malone tonight?”
It took one second for Musselman to respond: “We’re going to zone the Hades out of him,” or something like that.
The Muss was not deterred by the fact that the NBA had prohibited zone defense starting in January 1947 and that the ban was not lifted until the 2001-02 season.
The Wolves received several technicals for playing zone, yet led by 10 in the middle of the fourth quarter before losing 110-104 in overtime.
“They threw a defense at us we never had seen before,” Malone said.
Even though he was coaching the NBA’s version of Rutgers football, Musselman game-planned fiercely 164 times as the Timberwolves coach, going 22-60 in 1989-90 and in 29-53 in 1990-91, and bringing huge crowds to the Metrodome in that first season and sellouts to the new Target Center in the second.
He was fired after the second season for refusing orders to play Gerald Glass, a thick rookie with no interest in playing defense. If only Gerald had come along in the 2019 draft — he might spend his rookie season shooting eight threes a night and finding forgiveness for other shortcomings.
Tom Thibodeau was a young assistant fired along with Musselman. He returned as coach and basketball boss for the 2016-17 season, game-planned every night for 2½ seasons, and then was fired halfway through the 2018-19 schedule. There were several reasons, including not playing well with others in the business side of the operation.
Ryan Saunders was promoted to interim coach in January and now is the head coach at age 33. He has in his possession the famed playbook that his late father Flip used when coaching the Wolves in their lone period of success — from a first playoff appearance in April 1997, to a journey to the No. 1 seed and the Western Conference finals in 2004.
There are plays in there that Flip ran when playing for Musselman with the Gophers, plays he designed for the Wolves to run with Stephon Marbury (before he took a hike in 1999) at point guard.
Ryan treasures that playbook — as a keepsake, not as a guideline for an NBA offense in the fall of 2019.
“When my dad was back here [in 2014-15] and I was an assistant, I didn’t agree with him on everything,” Ryan said Tuesday. “I didn’t like the plays that led to midrange twos. And I’d tell him that.”
Disdaining the midrange two is now a requirement for Saunders, surrounded as he is by assistants that he didn’t hire, in order to ride out this latest dramatic redo for the Wolves.
They have gone from Thibodeau’s game-planning for open shots from all ranges, to new basketball boss Gersson Rosas’ devotion to a three-or-layup philosophy.
Unfortunately, James Harden ain’t walking through that door, and the Wolves’ five exhibitions were frightening: A collection of sub-mediocre shooters throwing threes and denting rims in Scottsdale, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Milwaukee.
Saunders was asked on the eve of Wednesday’s 31st season opener in Brooklyn: “Emphasis on specific game plans, or playing the way you play?”
Saunders said: “Very much the way we play. There are things that you do adjust going into each game based on what an opponent is going to do defensively, but we’re committed to our system, committed to our philosophy. We plan on staying true to that.”
That’s on offense. On defense, where the Wolves were seen waving at opponents as they went on by vs. the Warriors and the Bucks (to name two), the fast pace will require defending another eight to 10 possessions per game.
Any signs the same uniforms Thibodeau couldn’t get to play defense are ready for that challenge?
“There are a number of things we need to clean up,” Saunders said. “It will be a continuing process when you’re changing systems.”
Well, at least there’s the optimistic note from Jeff Teague, the veteran starting point guard, earlier this month. Asked about potential ball-handling issues with this commitment to a run-and-brick offense, Teague said: “I think we’re going to have a lot of turnovers. Playing with a new pace, with a lot of guys trying to get used to one another … I guess that comes with it.”
I’m not sure Flip would approve. And I know The Muss would be mortified.