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Zulgad: Getting the point: Wolves’ effort on defense is key to opening-night win over Rockets

Jalen Green, Josh Okogie, D'Angelo Russell
Houston Rockets guard Jalen Green drives on Minnesota Timberwolves forward Josh Okogie (20) and Timberwolves guard D’Angelo Russell, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

The Timberwolves spent last season taking a defense-is-optional approach that left them second-to-last in the NBA in points surrendered (117.7 per game) and looking up at the Western Conference playoff teams after a 36-46 finish. Gersson Rosas, the now former Wolves president of basketball operations, took steps to fix the problem by obtaining three-time NBA all-defensive pick Patrick Beverley in August, and attempting to acquire disgruntled defensive standout Ben Simmons from the 76ers.

The Wolves opened the regular season on Wednesday night against Houston at Target Center with Beverley serving a one-game suspension from last season’s playoffs and Simmons still battling to get out of Philadelphia. So how did the Wolves fare with a collection of players who seemed uninterested in playing defense the last time they were on the floor?

Short answer: Better than anyone expected.

Minnesota led by as many as 35 points in a 124-106 victory over the woeful Rockets, but the primary storyline wasn’t Karl-Anthony Towns’ 30 points, Anthony Edwards’ 29 or D’Angelo Russell’s 22. It also wasn’t the fact that one of the league’s worst three-point shooting teams last season hit 42 percent of its attempts (16-of-38). The headline was that the Wolves set the tone early by playing tremendous defense, and brought an energy that had the 16,079 in attendance waiting for the next big play.

The Wolves had 31 fast-break points in part because of their ability to make big plays on defense and then quickly transition. “It’s really what we’ve been trying to sell our guys,” said Wolves coach Chris Finch, who went 16-25 after taking over for Ryan Saunders last season. “If we want to be a team that takes a step forward, we have to have that type of defensive approach.”

Finch left the Toronto Raptors to take over the Wolves because of his offensive acumen, but he also knew that his offense alone wouldn’t be enough. Finch’s starting five in the opener included Jaden McDaniels and Josh Okogie with Towns, Edwards and Russell. The desire to have two standout defensive players on the floor to open the game moved scorer Malik Beasley into a reserve role. McDaniels finished with three blocks in 25 minutes, 31 seconds, and Okogie had two in 21:11. The pair combined for only 10 points but that wasn’t the point of their playing time.

The starting five established the tempo and even though the Wolves shot 10-of-24 from the floor in the opening quarter, including 2-of-12 on threes, the Wolves still led 32-21 after 12 minutes. The Wolves sent a message in the opening quarter when McDaniels stole Kevin Porter Jr.’s pass and fed the ball to Towns for what became a thundering dunk. The lead was 27 by halftime and the Wolves would get the margin as high as 35.

“Our offense was truly generated by our defense,” said Towns, who had 10 of the Wolves’ 46 rebounds and five of the 13 off the offensive glass. “It’s these little lines at the bottom (of the box score) that I think shows the true game. Thirty-one fast-break points, 15 points off second-chance points were made and I think off turnovers we had 30 points (it was actually 38). We really weren’t trying to get into much of a half court (offense). We utilized our defense to start our offense and when you have people like D’Angelo Russell, Ant, Jaden, Malik, all you’ve got to do is get us with some pace and I think they’ll do the rest.”

The Wolves have plenty to prove and a chance to get off to a good start with their first three games at home and six of their first eight at Target Center. Tuesday’s win also comes with the reality that the Rockets are destined to be one of the NBA’s bottom feeders this season.

Nonetheless, Finch had to be encouraged by what he saw in the first game after a training camp in which he had the opportunity to install his system. It shouldn’t be that big of deal that that included an approach in which defense was no longer optional, but rather a necessity for a franchise that has only made the playoffs once in the past 17 seasons.

Will the Wolves keep it up? If they do, Finch’s team could find itself playing in front of plenty enthusiastic crowds this winter.