Time to run: Wolves bringing back fast-break offense
MINNEAPOLIS — Sidney Lowe slumped down in his chair after practice, an ice pack the size of a watermelon fastened to his right knee.
It had been a perspiration-filled, physically demanding workout. But this wasn’t a session with Bill Musselman during the 1989-90 preseason.
This was Monday, July 7 at the Target Center. And Lowe was dressed in a coaching polo, not a practice jersey.
Flip Saunders taking the franchise’s coaching reins this offseason didn’t exactly represent a wholesale overhaul. After all, he’d been in place as president of basketball operations for more than a year and previously oversaw the team’s on-court ventures for a decade.
But change is coming. For those Timberwolves participating in NBA Summer League, it’s already here.
More fast-break offense, like Saunders emphasized during eight playoff seasons here from 1996-2004. Higher-tempo practice sessions. Young, athletic talent suited for a track meet.
"It’s very tough, honestly," said second-year big man Gorgui Dieng, who added 17 pounds to his frame before summer league minicamp began. "A lot of running, and we just keep going. It’s very hard.
"Hopefully, I don’t lose all the weight I gained."
It’s not that now-retired Rick Adelman didn’t work the Wolves hard during three seasons at the helm. The surefire Hall of Famer’s 1,000 wins and league-wide respect speak for themselves.
But the corner-offense mastermind’s style was more refined, predicated upon systematic direction relative to a specific scheme.
Summer league, though, has revealed some of the stylistic differences between Adelman and his boss during the 2013-14 campaign. Saunders’ vision calls for a much more fluid, fast and ferocious course of play.
"Intensity was on another level with Flip being the main guy in charge," returning small forward Shabazz Muhammad said. And that was just after the team’s first summer-league practice, a near-three-hour affair that had guys cramping up and gingerly walking out of the Lifetime Fitness Center afterward.
Practice these days features Saunders, his son Ryan and former Wolves Lowe and Sam Mitchell stretching the limits of their players’ physical demands. They’re loud, too — it’s not uncommon for Lowe to spring up the court behind the play and scream in rookie guard Zach LaVine’s ear to "get up" and guard his man closer on defense.
"I’ve always done that, because I believe that basketball’s a game of reaction," said Saunders, whose summer-league squad advanced to face Sacramento on Thursday in the Las Vegas Summer League’s tournament bracket. "You have to simulate in games the pressure, the demands that happen in practice what’s going to happen in a game. You try to put those same demands on them and make it as difficult as you can."
And that, in theory, can translate to a more frenetic pace of play. "We’ve always been run-first," Saunders said.
With LaVine, Muhammad and 2014 second-rounder Glenn Robinson III leading the charge, Minnesota has shown summer-league glimpses of a run-and-gun team. LaVine’s broken out in transition for an electrifying dunk on several occasions, and Dieng already has the propensity to pull down a rebound and immediately look for an outlet man.
Some of Minnesota’s top players under contract suit a push-the-ball style, too. Ricky Rubio is one of the game’s best transition passers. Corey Brewer’s main offensive weapon is leaking out and throwing down fast-break jams. Kevin Love, who may well be on the roster when training camp begins in October, commenced a lot of them with his deft outlet passes.
The Wolves can "run on you all day," Muhammad said.
"That’s something that I love," said Muhammad, the Wolves’ leading summer-league scorer with 14.3 points per game. "I’m a guy who tries to get hungry on the court, dive on the floor and stuff like that — the dirty stuff. Flip is a guy who’s going to do that."
It’s not that Adelman forced his players to calm down, step off the gas and run his half-court offense every time up the floor. According to NBA player tracking numbers, Timberwolves players ran a combined 16.6 miles per game last season. Minnesota’s 16 fast-break points per game ranked seventh in the league.
But if Saunders has his druthers, both those numbers could go up this season.
"It’s really up and down," said LaVine, the 13th overall pick in this year’s draft. "I’m a type of player that really likes to get up and down, use my speed and quickness. It’s the NBA, so you always have to be on point and on cue with everything."
That’s especially true on defense, which failed the Wolves miserably at the end of close games last season. Overall, their adversaries shot 47.1 percent from the floor, tied for the NBA’s second-worst opponent field-goal percentage.
An upgrade in physical giftedness can help. But defense is primarily about effort — hence the increased amount of wind sprints and vocalized instruction from Saunders and his staff.
"If you’ve got the heart and the mindset, you can be a really good defender," LaVine said. "You’ve just got to know your assignments, your rotations. You’ve just got to play your heart out there."Passivity is no longer an option.
"It’s definitely the most competitive and most amped-up practice," Robinson said. "Physically, mentally, it’ll take a little adjusting to get to."
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