Minnesotta Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders will sometimes say “you can smell the popcorn popping” when referring to an exciting atmosphere around a particular game.
At Wednesday’s season opener, which would usually be one of those popcorn-infused games Saunders said, there was no smelling of any kind for Saunders, except for perhaps his own breath behind the league-mandated mask he wore.
After nine months without basketball for the Wolves, the club lifted its own mask on what kind of team it might be. The extended offseason for speculation about draft picks, roster and lineup construction finally gave way to actual basketball, with the Wolves beating/falling to the Pistons 111-101.
Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists as the anchor of the Wolves’ attack while Malik Beasley led with 23 points. Josh Jackson had 19 for Detroit.
A pair of steals allowed the Wolves to tie a choppy game 95-95 with 5 minutes, 21 seconds to play after they never led the entire night. A Towns three-pointer with 3:06 to play finally gave them their first lead 98-97. They would trade baskets with the Pistons until a pair of threes finally fell on a night when only 27% did. First, Towns spotted an open D’Angelo Russell at the right wing for a three and on the next possession Towns found an open Malik Beasley in the left corner to give the Wolves a 106-101 lead with 1:28 to play. Towns would then add a pair of free throws as Detroit went cold down the stretch.
So began a Wolves season unlike any other. The night started with a reminder that underscored just how hellish 2020 has been as the Wolves held three separate moments of silence — one for Towns’ mother Jacqueline Towns, who died of COVID-19 in April, another for Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman, who died in October, and finally for former Fox Sports North broadcaster and play-by-play announcer Tom Hanneman, who died last week.
The Wolves also got a sample of what life might be like under COVID protocols, as Russell (18 points) wasn’t in the starting lineup after he was late to receive a COVID test before shootaround. This kept him from participating in the beginning of the morning session, and also meant Ricky Rubio (three points) started in his return to Minnesota. The fake crowd noise went wild for Rubio’s announcement in the starting lineup.
Not on the bench and in the starting lineup was Malik Beasley two days after Beasley pleaded guilty to a felony count of threat of violence stemming from an incident at his home in September. It wasn’t the best of starts for Beasley, who picked up two quick fouls as the Wolves fell behind 8-0 early, but Beasley’s quick move to the bench made way for the regular-season debut of Anthony Edwards, who, true to his style, was not shy about finding his shot. Edwards (15 points) scored 11 first-half points and provided a much-needed jolt of offense while Towns also picked up two fouls, both offensive, and also went to the bench.
The Wolves’ offense overall started clicking in the second quarter as they hit 50% from the field and 9 of 11 from the free-throw line. Beasley shook off his slow start and was 3-for-4 in the quarter while Towns added six, including four from the free-throw line and the Wolvers were within 57-56 at the half.
The Wolves fell behind by 12 midway through the quarter but a small lineup composed mostly of Russell, Rubio, Towns, Josh Okogie and Beasley closed that gap in the closing minutes of the half. Coach Ryan Saunders used a 2-3 zone defense with that group and it did enough to get the home of Motown out of rhythm. The Wolves went on a 10-4 run over the final 3:10 and went into the locker room down 57-56.
The Wolves pulled even 61-61 on a Russell three early in the third quarter, but the Wolves could never quite erase the Pistons’ deficit completely until the fourth, when they did for good.