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Pressure on Wolves from Opening Tip

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October 17, 2017


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With a disappointing past but an intriguing offseason of personnel changes, coach Tom Thibodeau and his players need to fulfill expectations in the months ahead. The Timberwolves, who haven’t earned their way into the NBA playoffs since 2004, open the regular season schedule Wednesday night in San Antonio against the Spurs, and the pressure to win starts this week.

The Wolves are a favorite of NBA authorities to qualify for the 2018 playoffs, perhaps finishing with the fifth best record in the Western Conference behind the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets and Thunder. If the team doesn’t make the playoffs the disappointed will include Wolves owner Glen Taylor. He told Sports Headliners Monday he shares the “high expectations” of fans and nothing else could balance out the club not playing in the postseason.

Taylor described the expectations for the playoffs as “good pressure” on the Wolves. “We have some very good players,” he said. “The coaching staff should be ready. I can’t think of any reason other than injuries that’s going to hold us back.”

Glen Taylor (photo courtesy of Minnesota Timberwolves).

Taylor is more excited going into this season than any in awhile. In the past he has been looking down the road, hoping for a playoff team eventually. “I think we’re there now,” he said. “We just have to produce.”

Thibodeau’s chair is a little warm after last season—his first as the franchise’s basketball czar. As coach and president, Taylor has entrusted his team’s future to Thibodeau who was one of pro basketball’s most successful coaches with the Bulls. The Wolves, though, underachieved last season when they won only 31 games, lost 51, and weren’t even a threat to make the playoffs.

Thibodeau, who in the past has been aloof with players, is considered an old-school coach demanding discipline and physical play starting with defense. The new era NBA—at least some places—seems to put an emphasis on chummy coach and player relationships, while tactically spreading the floor, using long distance shooting and multi-positional players.

Can Thibodeau make things work? Will the Wolves play differently than the grinder style characterizing the coach’s Bulls’ teams?

The Wolves, who open their home season Friday night against the Jazz, have three new starters and four newbies coming off the bench. Power forward Taj Gibson, small forward Jimmy Butler and point guard Jeff Teague join center Karl-Anthony Towns and shooting guard Andrew Wiggins as starters. Shooting guard Jamal Crawford is a key reserve.

With so many new faces there are questions? How will the club chemistry be? Will the players share the ball on offense and help each other on defense? Will they sacrifice their bodies and egos to achieve team success?

Among questions being asked is whether collectively the players will shoot well enough from the outside to help deliver a big year? Butler, Teague and Wiggins haven’t been that effective with perimeter shooting in the past.

The challenge of stepping it up faces all three, but maybe Wiggins more than the others. He just signed a mega contract and his physical gifts rank with the best in the NBA. That includes the potential to be a better long range shooter. But in his previous three NBA seasons Wiggins seems more interested in being isolated with the ball and slashing to the basket.

Thibodeau will ask for maximum effort and performance defensively from his players. As defenders, improvement will definitely be expected from Towns and Wiggins. Their buy-in will dictate a lot regarding the defensive prowess of this year’s team.

The hype is on about the Wolves. Butler, acquired in an offseason deal with the Bulls, is one of the NBA’s better all-around players, and at 28 presumably the veteran leader the club has been missing. Towns, the 21-year-old center going into his third NBA season, was named in a preseason poll of league general managers as the player they would most want to start a franchise with. Teague is expected to provide better shooting than former starter Ricky Rubio. Gibson, at 32, gives the Wolves experience at power forward, and Crawford, even older at 37, will play the role of three-point producer and scorer off the bench. That same general managers poll showed 69 percent forecast the Wolves to be the NBA’s most improved team.

Taylor said that unlike the past, Thibodeau hasn’t been critical of players when talking to him. “Listening to him…he’s really been pleased with just about all the players. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall anything negative he said about any player.

“The year before he always had bitter expectations of some of the guys that they could have done more, or a little bit (of) this. But this year he’s been really positive about the guys, and he’s pointed out a lot of good things that he sees. That’s not just the starting five, but everybody on the team.”

Worth Noting

In its NBA preview edition that came out last week, Sports Illustrated ranked the league teams 1-30 for entertainment value using criteria that included “style of play, firepower, age, health, coaching and personality.” The Wolves ranked No. 7 after the Warriors, Rockets, Thunder, Celtics, Cavaliers and Bucks.

The magazine projects the Wolves will finish fifth in the Western Conference behind the Warriors, Rockets, Spurs, and Thunder. S.I. raves about Towns. Writing that Towns “flashed talent seldom seen from a second-year big man,” the magazine reported that following the NBA All-Star break last winter Towns averaged 28.4 points per game on 59.7 percent shooting with 13.4 rebounds.

The Timberwolves and city of Minneapolis officials are justifiably excited to showcase their $145 million Target Center renovation on Friday night for the team’s home opener. The concourse and bowl improvements include a new state-of-the-art scoreboard, better restrooms, new seats, upgraded sound system and digital signage. There is also new luxury seating, and exterior changes including a new three-story glass atrium.

City officials, though, should be concerned about downtown’s reputation for public safety. The threat of violence and individuals who harass others on downtown streets are issues that worry patrons attending events on Hennepin Avenue, and at Target Center and Target Field.

Taylor’s Lynx have won four WNBA championships but he said the 2017 title stands out after a controversial officiating call played a role in his 2016 team losing in the finals. “This is a good one. This is right up there (among the best title winning years) just because I was so disappointed last year and how that got refereed at the end (of the championship game). We lost something which I thought we deserved to win.”

If the Lynx receive an invitation to be honored at the White House, Taylor said it won’t happen for awhile. Most likely a White House visit would coincide with a scheduled Lynx game in Washington D.C. against the Mystics.

U.S. Bank Stadium’s five pivoting doors were opened at 9 a.m. Sunday for the Vikings-Packers game that started at noon. The outside temperature was 43 degrees. The doors (95 feet tall at their peaks) are popular for the outside feel they contribute to the roof covered facility, but fans in the west stands sometimes complain about cold air.

A street seller was asking $125 for an inexpensive seat for last Sunday’s game, and $300 to $400 for better seats.

A parking lot across from the stadium was charging $55, while eight to 10 blocks away the rate was $20 per vehicle. The cost was $30 about six blocks from the stadium. Meters on the street charged $25.

Vikings second-year receiver Laquon Treadwell had fans raving over his one-handed catch in the Packer game. Treadwell said it was the second best reception of his life, with an even better one playing in college for Mississippi.

The Gophers’ fragile bowl hopes start with a must win Saturday at home against Illinois, the Big Ten’s worst team. Minnesota, 3-3 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten, could get to the prerequisite six victories and a bowl invitation by defeating Illinois and Nebraska at home, and Northwestern on the road.

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta, who played high school football for Burnsville, is taking an extended leave of absence because of surgery and treatment for prostate cancer.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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