Only three seasons ago, the Timberwolves roster included nary a rim defender, a fact the team’s fans, opposing guards and often the scoreboard couldn’t deny.
After the Wolves concluded preseason play with Friday night’s 109-74 victory over shorthanded Charlotte at Target Center, they possess at least three big men who can alter or block shots.
New coach Tom Thibodeau has brought his own sophisticated defensive system as well as an intensity and attention to detail about such things not seen in these parts for some time.
He also inherited starting big men Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng, then signed second-unit center Cole Aldridge to implement his philosophies with enough size and mobility to protect the rim.
“Well, I’d prefer to have our guards keep the ball in front,” Thibodeau said. “I’d like to start there, but it’s always nice to have the shot-blocking and rebounding.”
Thibodeau’s preference sometimes is a dream in a league now dominated by guards who can’t be defended 1-on-1 or sometimes even with team schemes. When the Wolves perimeter defense breaks down, they now have options waiting in the free-throw lane and at the rim.
In five seasons with Chicago, Thibodeau’s Bulls won as many as 62 games and never fewer than 45 with a defense anchored by former All-Star Joakim Noah. They did so with this premise: The worst thing you can do is allow the other team free throws, so don’t foul. The second-worst thing is don’t allow layups, so don’t let opponents get to the rim.
“He’ll build a defense just like he did in Chicago that will start at the basket,” said Hornets coach Steve Clifford, a longtime friend and colleague. “Look at his teams in Chicago. He was great at that.”
The Wolves finished preseason 5-2, winning four of their last five. They limited the Hornets to 31.6 percent shooting and those 74 points, the fewest Charlotte scored and the fewest the Wolves allowed in the preseason.
Afterward, Wolves guard Ricky Rubio fairly marveled at his team’s defensive play.
“On defense, we’re just a totally different team than last year,” Rubio said.
The Wolves led by 17 in the second quarter, by 41 in the fourth. That was their second 40-point lead in three nights at Target Center, but this time they didn’t give most of it back as they did in Wednesday’s 101-94 victory over Memphis.
The 35-point margin of victory is the second largest in team preseason history. The Wolves beat Milwaukee by 38 in October 2008.
Shabazz Muhammad returned after he missed Wednesday’s game because of hip soreness that has bothered him throughout the preseason. He led the Wolves in scoring with 17 points in 19 minutes.
Forward Andrew Wiggins missed his second consecutive games because of what Thibodeau has called an allergic reaction.
• Karl-Anthony Towns played just 15 minutes. The center picked up his fifth foul a minute into the third quarter and did not play again, with the Wolves already leading by 18 points and with the season opener awaiting Wednesday in Memphis.
• The Wolves must submit their final 15-man roster to the NBA by Monday. With 17 men still on the team, their final two moves could come as soon as Saturday.
• Second-year forward Nemanja Bjelica scored in double figure in five of seven preseason games. He had 14 points off the bench Friday and was a plus-39 in plus-minus rating, two points better than veteran guard Brandon Rush’s plus-37.
• Rush started in Wiggins’ spot and made all four of his three-point shots he attempted. He scored 14 points. “He fits with the starters, he fits with the bench,” Thibodeau said. “It’s the same role he had with Golden State. … There are very few guys who can handle both and he can.”
• Rubio celebrated his 26th birthday Friday.
• The Hornets left starters Marvin Williams (finger) and Nicolas Batum (rest) home and also played without big men Spencer Hawes (rest) and Cody Zeller (knee) as well as guard Brian Roberts (hamstring). Frank Kaminsky went to the locker room in the first half because of a sprained right foot and did not return.