The Minnesota Timberwolves opened their 2018-19 season on Wednesday under the strangest of circumstances. Their best player, Jimmy Butler, doesn't want to be on the team, yet he still took the court with the rest of the squad.
Here are five takeaways from Wednesday's fun, physical, back-and-forth 112-108 San Antonio Spurs home-opener win over the Timberwolves.
Jimmy, the rusty alpha
Butler reminded us of a couple things: That there's a reason Tom Thibodeau has been dying to have him play for the Wolves this season … and that there's a reason NBA teams have a preseason. Butler was the Wolves' clear alpha dog from start to finish. He was the last player out when Minnesota ran out from the locker room. He dominated the touches (a team-high 23 shots) while Karl-Anthony Towns did not (2-of-6 for eight points in 22 minutes before fouling out). But Butler, who didn't play a single preseason game with his teammates, showed clear signs of rust. He missed several layups and uncontested bunnies -- shots that could have swung the game in the Wolves' favor -- and made only nine of his 23 shots.
Missing Dejounte already
Dejounte Murray's ACL injury in the preseason is going to be an incredibly difficult obstacle for the Spurs' defense to overcome. In three games against the Spurs last season, Wolves point guard Jeff Teague averaged 14.3 points. He scored more than 25 points exactly once last season. On Wednesday night, Teague was on fire as the Spurs gave him way too many wide-open shots. He scored 27 points on only 12 shots, and kept baiting the Spurs into fouling him. If a healthy Murray were matched up against Teague, he would have had to work twice as hard for half that production.
Three-pointers matter. The Timberwolves were dead last in the NBA last season in 3-pointers attempted, averaging 22.5 attempts per game. They fell short of that in Wednesday night's opener, taking only 19 3s -- and making only six of them. Meanwhile, the Spurs didn't shoot an enormous amount of 3s, but they made them at a high rate. The team that finished 27th in the NBA last season in 3-point attempts (averaging 24.3 per game) made 11-of-25 on Wednesday night. Davis Bertans in particular (3-of-4 from deep) made big shots at big moments. If Wednesday's opener is a harbinger of what's the come, the Wolves will continue to be an old-school basketball team this season in terms of spreading the floor.
DeMar DeRozan looks just fine in a Spurs uniform, thank you very much. It's not just that DeRozan scored a game-high 28 points, mostly on a steady diet of his mid-range specialties. It was that he had the best on-off numbers of any player on the court on Wednesday night, netting a plus-seven in his 38 minutes. The game seemed like a tailor-made statement to his biggest detractors, who look at DeRozan as an overrated star who puts up numbers, but doesn't help his team. Perhaps some Gregg Popovich defensive focus is exactly what the doctor ordered.
Reason for hope?
Maybe this Jimmy Butler drama is going to cool down in Minnesota. Did you notice Butler and Towns chatting with each other on the Wolves' bench during the game? I did! Did you notice Towns and Butler dapping up after player introductions, and then Butler breaking down the team's pre-game huddle and screaming? I did! Maybe this has all been one big con concocted by Thibs to get Butler to motivate these young Wolves into actually trying hard. Maybe Butler is going to stay in Minnesota after all, and sign an extension with the Wolves, and this franchise is going to be competing for titles for the next several years. While I'm at it, maybe Andrew Wiggins will stop shooting long twos, and will start playing lights-out defense, and will realize that he's supposed to foul the ballhandler immediately after your team misses a shot up two with 14 seconds left instead of letting him dribble six seconds off the clock. Just kidding. None of these things will happen. This soap opera bound to end in disaster.