The Minnesota Timberwolves are a completely new team

Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports
Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports /

In 2018, the Minnesota Timberwolves made the playoffs for the first time since 2004. On the back of some great play by guys like Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and yes, even Jimmy Butler, the Wolves broke one of the longest active playoff droughts not just in the NBA, but in all of professional sports.

Now, in 2021, just one player remains from that team, the one that was arguably the most successful version of the Wolves since 2004. That player is Karl-Anthony Towns, who, in his time with Minnesota, has been through five head coaches and no less than 65 different teammates.

This season, the Timberwolves are bringing back 11 players from 2020-21. That number, while encouraging, is almost unheard of among this organization. The amount of turnover that they normally experience, and the annual rebuilding of chemistry, seem to have been put to a halt. Minnesota, on the outside, seems to be nearly the same team that they were last year.

And yet these Minnesota Timberwolves are completely different.

For the first time in a long time, the Minnesota Timberwolves are markedly improved.

The biggest place this improvement has been, by far, is defense. If there is any aspect of the Wolves’ game that has taken a leap to the next level it has to be that. Last season especially, Minnesota’s defense was horrendous. Their opponent’s averaged 49.8 points per game (24th in the NBA), 14.5 second-chance points (28th in the NBA), and shooting 48.2 percent from the field and 39.2 percent from 3-point range (28th and 30th in the league, respectively).

In this first game of what feels like a completely new season, the Timberwolves held the Houston Rockets to 58 points in the paint, 17 second-chance points, and 45.5 percent shooting from the field and 33.3 percent shooting from deep. Comparatively, the Timberwolves recorded 50 points in the paint, 15 second-chance points, and shot 48.3 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from deep.

The numbers, however, don’t do this game justice. The sheer effort and determination that the Wolves were showing on the defensive end was outstanding. For my money, the most impressive stat is that the Wolves starting five along–D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Josh Okogie, Jaden McDaniels, and Karl-Anthony Towns–had almost three times the amount of blocks that the entire Houston Rockets had, outnumbering them 8-3.

Minnesota was also able to force 24 turnovers from the Rockets and converted them into 38 points off turnovers, compared to Houston’s 18 and 21 respectively. The cherry on top? Minnesota, the second smallest team (albeit, the Rockets are the smallest) in the league corralled 33 defensive rebounds and converted some of those boards to additions to their total of 31 fast-break points. Minnesota also outrebounded Houston on the offensive end, winning that battle 13-12.

Towns really looked like he was improving on the defensive end as well. Someone who normally struggled on that side of the court, Towns ended up with two blocks and two steals and shot a great 11-15 from the floor. Over the offseason, Towns contacted defensive great Ben Wallace, who told him to lose some weight and gave him advice on playing defense.

If there was going to be one word to describe this game, it’s intensity. The Wolves laid the pressure on Houston for three and a half quarters, only letting up towards the end of the game when the result was no longer in question. Everyone was diving for loose balls, clawing for boards, and keeping the offense in check with quick hands (Minnesota came away with 18 steals in the game). And intensity could describe this team as well. The team, in recent interviews, has left us with some pretty insane quotes. The first is from D’Angelo Russell, talking about his mindset this season:

"Kill anybody in front of us. I don’t care who it is. I don’t care what team it is. Just try to win the matchup. Win the night. Win the quarter. Win everything."

And the other has come from Karl-Anthony Towns, talking about his new pre-game ritual:

"I really have just been watching two gorillas fight before every game. I’ve been addicted to that. I want to see who is the best in the laws of nature. I’m watching gorillas fight all day. I know if I’m in that video, I’m leaving out alive. Someone gotta die. Ain’t gonna be me."

Many have attributed this ritual, which I’m sure another one of Towns’ mentors in Kevin Garnett would approve of, and the overall increase in intensity to Patrick Beverly joining the squad, and it’s hard to disagree. Beverly is an irritant for opponents, and if he’s on a team, it’s likely that he’s imposing a “kill what you eat” sort of mentality.

However, there’s another better word to describe this new and improved Wolves team: unity. Late in the game, the Wolves lost the ball, and the Rockets took off on a two-on-none fast break. Instead of just sitting back and letting the Rockets score some meaningless points, Malik Beasley sprinted down the court, swatted the ball out of the Rocket Player’s hands, and then dove to the baseline to try and keep it in bounds. The ball went out, but this was the bench’s reaction:

It’s so important to see this, especially in a young team, early in the season, and definitely at the end of a great defensive play, which Beasley would then match a few plays later:

The plays were amazing, and the team’s reaction was even better. To top it all off, at the end of the game, as some players had already gone into Minnesota’s locker room, Anthony Edwards called everyone back out onto the court, and there was a brief team huddle. At the end, they chanted “1-2-3 FAMILY.” Towns later commented on that chant, and on the bench reaction to the first Beasley play mentioned, saying:

"The culture we’re trying to build here is special and it requires everyone to be active … We’re supposed to be brothers. We gotta act like it. We say ‘1-2-3 Family’, we got to act like it."

It’s hard to say Minnesota Timberwolves basketball is back, not because it isn’t, but because for so long that phrase, “Minnesota Timberwolves basketball”, has carried with it some negative connotations. It meant losing, and moving forward without a direction, for so long. But that’s not the case anymore. At least, not judging by this game. Minnesota Timberwolves basketball is not back.

The NEW Minnesota Timberwolves basketball is here.

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