Saturday night marked the first time in just over nine months the Timberwolves took the court against another NBA team, the second time Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell took the court together in Wolves uniforms and the beginning of who knows how many games the team will play at Target Center without fans.
With only players, coaches, essential staff and some media members in attendance, the Wolves kicked off what will be one of the most unusual seasons in team history with a 107-105 preseason loss to Memphis.
Guard Ja Morant looked electrifying in scoring 20 points to lead Memphis, while second-year Wolves guard Jaylen Nowell caught fire late in the game and made his best case for some playing time with 22 points on 7-for-11 shooting. Russell added 14.
BOXSCORE: Memphis 107, Wolves 105 (exhib.)
To underscore the surreal atmosphere Saturday night, some Wolves players waved to a nonexistent crowd as the PA announcer welcomed them to the floor. Soon after, the Wolves got to the business at hand — trying to figure out what kind of team they have.
Along those lines, coach Ryan Saunders cautioned everyone multiple times before Saturday's game not to read too much into lineup combinations, but they are notable even if to document for posterity.
The Wolves began with a starting lineup of Towns, Russell, Josh Okogie, Malik Beasley and Jake Layman. This meant Ricky Rubio, in his return to the Wolves, came off the bench. Rubio had previously said he wouldn't be thrilled with coming off the bench but would do it if Saunders thought it necessary.
Towns got things rolling offensively with a pair of three-point plays in his first game action back from a life-altering offseason in which his mother and six other relatives died of COVID-19. It was also Towns' first game action since a left wrist fracture kept him out of the final 12 games last season.
"When you lose somebody like a parent or somebody like Karl lost, that meant that much to him, there's a lot of firsts," Saunders said. "Playing a game here in a place that his mother loved to come watch and play, that was a first for him. I think I'll continue to say that Karl's strength through all this has been remarkable."
Towns cooled down from the field, going 4-for-13 for the game for 13 points. He picked up five fouls in 22 minutes.
The Wolves appeared like they were just getting to know each other. Look no further than their 22 turnovers as proof.
"My expectation is to be better next game ..." Saunders said of the miscues. "I knew we had a number of newer players learning the pace we want to play at. I expected some of those turnovers in the open court. But I thought some of them were unforced."
He emptied the bench in the fourth quarter, and Nowell, who filled up the stat sheet at times in the G-League at Iowa, took advantage of that opportunity.
Rubio and Anthony Edwards were the first substitutes to enter the game, a few minutes into the first quarter. Edwards got off to a slow start shooting, missing the rim on his first three-point attempt, but he got a few to go down in the second quarter after misfiring on his first three shots. He finished with five points on 2-for-9 shooting.
"I like his game. He doesn't force it," Russell said. "He's trying to make the right play out there. He's getting to his spots. He wasn't making shots and that's an adjustment, but he's got some flavor to him."
Former Wolves Gorgui Dieng and Tyus Jones finished with eight and six points, respectively, for Memphis.
One Wolves player who stood out Saturday was Jake Layman with 10 points while Rubio finished nine points and five rebounds. Rubio and Russell shared the court at times.
"It's an easy dynamic to play with a guy like him who is just a heady basketball player," Russell said of Rubio. "We complement each other well. I like it."