The Timberwolves were down a point to Indiana after three quarters Monday at Target Center. To start the fourth, coach Tom Thibodeau sent out a lineup of five bench players: Tyus Jones, Derrick Rose, rookie Josh Okogie, Gorgui Dieng and Anthony Tolliver.
Here’s how the quarter started: Rose drove for an acrobatic layup. Dieng rebounded an Indiana miss, then Rose fed Jones for three-pointer. Rose rebounded the Pacers’ next missed shot and scored on the break.
Two minutes, a 7-0 run.
And it wasn’t done. Jimmy Butler subbed in for Rose with 9:57 left, and the Wolves kept rolling. Jones fed Dieng for a layup, then Tolliver for a three and the Wolves were on a 12-0 run, taking control of the game for good. Over the first 5 minutes, 27 seconds of the quarter the Wolves outscored the Pacers 20-6, with reserves scoring all 20 of those points.
“Our bench play was terrific in the second half,” Thibodeau said. “I’m encouraged by the guys we have on the bench. All of them. I like the way they work every day.”
One quarter doesn’t make a season, especially this early in the 82-game slate. But it appears the bench — the focus of much of the work the Wolves did during the offseason, in drafting Okogie while adding Tolliver and re-signing Rose in free agency — could be paying off.
Last year, the start of the second and fourth quarters — time usually reserved for lineups made up mainly of reserves — could be an adventure for the Wolves. According to hoopsstats.com, the Wolves’ bench ranked last in the league in net efficiency last season. Through four games this year the Wolves bench is 11th.
The difference isn’t only in scoring, where the Wolves bench, at 39.5 points, is way ahead of last year’s 26.6 average.
It’s also in defense. With Butler often playing with the reserves the unit has improved there as well; Monday against the Pacers the backcourt combination of Butler, Jones and Okogie was very good, with Butler and Okogie able to switch on pick and rolls. Indiana shot just 8-for-20 in the fourth quarter. While the Wolves were opening the quarter on that 20-6 run Indiana shot 3-for-10 and was outrebounded 7-3. It’s no coincidence Monday marked the first time the Wolves scored more second-chance points than they allowed.
“Our job is to go in there and give the game what it’s missing,” Rose said. “And this time it was pushing the ball and rebounding.”
The Wolves finished with 26 fast-break points after getting 29 in Dallas on Saturday; it’s the first time since 2001 a Wolves team has had 25 on the break in back-to-back games.
Perhaps the most promising thing about the bench might be its versatility.
“Gorgui is playing at a high level, too,” Thibodeau said. “When you have Tyus, Derrick and Jimmy on the floor, and Anthony spacing and Gorgui is putting pressure on the rim ... you have multiple playmakers. So if we get stops and get out into the open floor, we’re going to get good looks. I think we’re going to score a ton of points.”
Okogie got his first chance to play when Butler sat out the second half of a back-to-back in Dallas. Monday his minutes came when starter Andrew Wiggins sustained a thigh bruise early and did not return. After scoring 12 points with three steals — Wolves reserves got seven of the team’s nine steals and four of the 11 blocked shots — it will be difficult to keep him out of the rotation going forward.
“I think they fit well together,” guard Jeff Teague said. “You have Rose and Tyus, they play well together. You have [Tolliver] who can stretch the floor. It just fits well for Tyus and Derrick to create, then have a guy like Okogie who can bring a lot of energy and score. You can see the chemistry when they play. And they’re only going to keep growing.”