Winning Wolves eager to take on champion Warriors
MINNEAPOLIS — The last time the Minnesota Timberwolves won five straight games, five head coaches and nearly nine long years ago, Al Jefferson was the centerpiece of the team. Kevin Love was a rookie, still coming off the bench. Fifteen different players started at least one game.
Karl-Anthony Towns had just turned 13. President George W. Bush was still in the White House.
The woebegone Wolves have waited a long time for this. They will play at Golden State on Wednesday night, just one-half game behind the defending NBA champion Warriors for the best record in the Western Conference. Forget for a moment that the regular season is merely 12 percent complete. For the first time in, well, 13 years or so the Wolves will be a legitimate participant in a marquee national game on ESPN rather than a token opponent.
“You want to see where you are and how you measure up,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Everyone in the league is chasing them.”
These Wolves (7-3) have produced the franchise’s best 10-game start to the schedule since a 9-1 record in 2001 when Kevin Garnett was 25, Terrell Brandon was the point guard and Anthony Peeler was the first player the off the bench.
With only three players who’ve been on the roster longer than three years, there aren’t as many scars in the locker room as all that franchise futility would suggest. The last few seasons have been frustrating enough, though.
“It’s something that’s changing around here, and I’m glad to be a part of it,” said Shabazz Muhammad, who with fellow reserve Gorgui Dieng has the longest tenure in their fifth year.
The 2008-09 team finished 24-58, so the early January success was clearly not a harbinger.
The Wolves have lost 461 games between the end of that streak and now, so even three solid weeks to start a season is an accomplishment. Thibodeau was hired to take them much further than that, of course.
The hard-driving, no-nonsense coach sure won’t be satisfied with this team’s progress anytime soon, and neither will these players, from 17-year veteran Jamal Crawford to Towns, who’s still only 21.
“We just want to keep doing more of what we’re doing,” Crawford said after practice on Tuesday.
That’s continuing to better the defense, for one.
The Wolves have held three consecutive opponents under 100 points, with newcomers Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Crawford beginning to pick up the tendencies of their returning teammates and the young core of Towns and Andrew Wiggins starting to learn the principles of helping and switching under the defensive-minded Thibodeau. Chemistry is just as important when they’re guarding the basket as it is when they have the ball.
“It’s still a work in progress,’ Thibodeau said, “but I think we are moving in the right direction.”
The depth, and the versatility of that depth, is another area of vast improvement. The second team, which Thibodeau has played together as a unit for several stretches at a time, includes Tyus Jones, Crawford, Muhammad, Nemanja Bjelica and Dieng. When they are in, there has not been a drop-off at all from the star-studded starting lineup.
The Wolves are shooting 3-pointers more effectively and often, too, another long-running weakness of this team going back dozens of players and a handful of head coaches. With Towns in the paint and Wiggins on the wing, the Wolves already have two of the league’s best offensive players.
“They can definitely score. They have three or four guys out there that can get 20 on any given night,” said Charlotte Hornets power forward Marvin Williams, whose team lost at Minnesota on Sunday night. “They are definitely tough to stop.”
Then there’s Butler, the alpha wolf who Thibodeau wanted so badly as a tough, experienced two-way player who would not only challenge his teammates to excel but selflessly defer to them on the court as needed.
“When I feel like it’s my time to shoot, I’ll shoot it,” Butler said. “But as of right now, my teammates are rolling. Feed them. Let them get us going.”
Butler’s attitude and perspective might be the biggest upgrade the Wolves have made among so many.
“Often times you hear people say things, and they never do the things that they say. But when you watch what they’re doing, it tells you what’s important to them,” Thibodeau said. “Jimmy has always played that way.”