PHOENIX – For months, the Timberwolves have said they are going to play faster, that the offense is going to run through Karl-Anthony Towns and that there is a new positive culture around the organization, cleaning the stench the Jimmy Butler-Tom Thibodeau era left in its wake.
All that was true as the Wolves opened preseason action against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night at Talking Stick Resort Arena. But one issue, perhaps the most important one for the Gersson Rosas-Ryan Saunders regime, is very much up for debate — will all this lead to good basketball?
The Wolves got their first answer in a 111-106 loss to the Suns.
From the opening possessions, the Wolves made it clear they were going to push the pace and weren’t afraid to fire shots, usually three-pointers, early in the shot clock, much like the run-and-gun offense current Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni patented in this same city in the previous decade. The Wolves ended up taking 39 three-pointers out of 88 shot attempts and made just eight (21 percent).
“We were able to feel a number of things out,” Saunders said. “I like that we had 24 fast-break points. I like that we took 39 threes. I thought they were good looks for the most part. The majority of them were. I like where our shot chart was. I don’t like that we had 27 turnovers.”
Those turnovers were a bugaboo, one the Wolves will have to clean up, but by their estimate, about 15 of them were travels as the league has set a renewed emphasis on calling that violation.
Saunders also made good on his pledge to run the offense through Towns, including letting him handle the ball near the top of the key. Towns initiated the action with dribble handoffs or pick-and-roll action that sometimes led to easy baskets. He was his usual dominant self offensively with 19 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in 19 minutes. Towns took 13 shots, eight of which were threes.
It wasn’t as productive a night for Andrew Wiggins, who committed an unusual five fouls in the first half, and he was done for the night after that with six points on 3-for-8 shooting. Rookie Jarrett Culver overcame early nerves to score 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting with three rebounds and two steals but four turnovers in 25 minutes. He looked at ease when some lineup combinations pressed him into service as a point guard.
Tuesday also marked the return of Robert Covington, who eased back into the rotation with 12 minutes of action. He finished with two points.
“I ain’t my old self just yet,” said Covington, who started along with Towns, Wiggins, Jeff Teague and Jake Layman. “Once I get in shape, then I’ll be my old self. Once I get my legs under me, get a good feel and a good rhythm, old Cov will be back.”
Coming into the night, Saunders said he wanted to look at and experiment with a lot of different lineups, and his most effective featured Towns. He finished a plus-19 even though the Wolves lost. Noah Vanleh saw most of the action at center when Towns was on the bench early on, but Vonleh and the rest of the Wolves had their hand full defending Suns center DeAndre Ayton, who had 18 points and 13 rebounds. Ultimately, the Wolves committed too many turnovers and didn’t make enough threes, but they at least formed a blueprint for how they want to play.
“They weren’t anticipating us to be taking that many threes,” Covington said. “But we want to play fast and that was a prime example of how we wanted to play. Guys came in, they did well, lot of good shots and a lot of great shots. Now we just got to make them.”