Folks, I hope you caught a Timberwolves home game last week because now you won’t be able to do so until Sunday, March 22.
On Monday, the Wolves headed to Houston where they’ll begin a 12-day, six-game road trip. It’ll be the longest road trip of Wolves head coach Ryan Saunders’ NBA career.
There are obvious disadvantages of being on the road for that long: players and coaches don’t have the support of home game fans and have to be away from their families for an extended period.
But being on the road for two weeks also provides the Wolves with plenty of opportunities to build team chemistry when the majority of their days revolve around spending time with no one but each other.
Some Wolves players and coaches can go home to their family and friends after their workdays. That isn’t the case for forward James Johnson whose family doesn’t live in Minnesota. Living in temporary housing in Minneapolis, a city that’s still somewhat foreign to him, often feels like living on the road to him. The playing field will be leveled for the entire team for the next two weeks.
“We just have each other on the road,” Johnson said before Monday’s practice. “Take your time, go have dinner and get to know everyone better. I think that’s going to affect (what happens on) the court.”
“Sometimes you get better practice time, individual work time, better film sessions because that’ll be the only thing you have to do for that day,” Saunders said. “I’m looking forward to being able to put the work in with these guys.”
But the Wolves aren’t waiting until they land on foreign ground to put the work in.
Saunders shared that Wolves players were getting shots up at 8 a.m. two hours before the start of Monday’s practice. Once members of the media were admitted into the practice facility around 9:30 a.m., Jordan McLaughlin could be found working on his outside shooting while Johnson, Jarrett Culver, Juancho Hernangomez, Jaylen Nowell, Jake Layman, Naz Reid, Saunders and assistant coaches Kevin Hanson and Pablo Prigioni were seen running through plays on the opposite end of the Mayo Clinic Courts.
“This is a working group,” Saunders said. “Guys are trying to do the right things, and even though the results weren’t what we wanted last night, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to hang our heads for Houston tomorrow.”
Johnson is grateful for the “pre-practice” sessions, which provide him with an extra opportunity to learn terminologies and schemes outside of games. He’s also appreciative of players like McLaughlin and Culver who’re willing to come in early and walk him through the sets he’s still getting accustomed to.
“It translates on the court because on the court they’re still talking to me and I’m talking to them, too.”
The “pre-practice” sessions aren’t new to Johnson who’s played for six different franchises during his 11-year career.
“All the good coaches really do things like that,” Johnson said. “I see a lot of great things in Ryan that I’ve seen in a lot of great coaches I’ve been under. We’re on the right page. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
Saunders used the extra time he had with his players before Monday’s practice to reinforce the Wolves’ system values, which he feels they diverted from in their recent losses to the Orlando Magic and New Orleans Pelicans.
Learning and reinforcing their system is at the top of the Wolves’ priority list, but what happens when an opposing player throws chasms into their defensive principles by getting hot from midrange, for example? Do the Wolves remain loyal to their system which prioritizes taking away outside shooting, free throw attempts and shots around the rim while forcing teams to beat them in the midrange, or do they make an exception to lessen the blow?
Saunders said it’s a decision he and his staff make based on the “flow of the game.” To explain his answer, Saunders walked the media through how his team will game plan for defending prolific scorer James Harden in Tuesday’s game against the Houston Rockets.
“(Harden) can beat you in a lot of ways,” Saunders said. “Do you want to live with a contested midrange, do you want to live with him being a passer, or do you just want to get the ball out of his hands and make everybody else beat you? Those are the types of decisions you make as you game plan. You’re going to commit to that and see if it works early in the game.
“So, if we’re saying he’s going to be a mid-range shooter, you want to test that out, and if he’s scoring in the midrange, then you’re saying, ‘OK, let’s throw two (defenders) at him later in the game time scoring situations and get the ball out of his hands because he is getting hot.’”
The Wolves may also add some flexibility to their offensive system when necessary.
Wolves point guard D’Angelo Russell has proven to be deadly from midrange — remember when he dropped 52 points against the Wolves while playing with the Golden State Warriors back in November? Though their offensive system tries to limit shooting long 2s as much as possible, they may give Russell some wiggle room if defenses have trouble slowing him down from midrange.
“We’re not changing what we want, but if (Russell) scores in the midrange, you might bite your tongue a little more as opposed to saying, ‘Hey, let’s try to get you to the rim; let’s try to get a pass-pass to the corner,’” Saunders said.
Yet, their system values will still be reinforced even if a player finds success from the midrange.
“Even if a guy makes 55 midrange shots in a game, we’ll still talk about what we value for this team moving forward,” Saunders said. “We still want the process to be right.”
Coronavirus Outbreak Precautions
NBA teams are coming to terms with the harsh reality that their arenas and practice facilities aren’t immune to the spread of the coronavirus.
On Monday, Saunders expressed his trust in the league’s handling of the outbreak.
“The league has a good system in place,” Saunders said. “I know they’re working around the clock to be prepared for whatever situations come about.”
The same is true for the Wolves’ franchise.
“Our medical staff and our organization, we meet a lot to be on the same page with things,” Saunders said. “We’ll educate our players, but it’s nothing to just kind of brush off to the side. This is obviously a very serious thing that we’re dealing with. We’re a group in the NBA so obviously we want to be proactive with things.”