Young Timberwolves have their coming-out party in W over GSW

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Shaquille O’Neal was holding court at a press event during All-Star weekend, offering his analysis and opinions about all things NBA, when he was asked about Karl-Anthony Towns, the superb rookie of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“Don’t nobody watch Minnesota,” O’Neal bellowed with a playfully dismissive chuckle, reaching for an imaginary remote control. “I see the Timberwolves on TV and … click.”

Maybe it’s time to change the channel again. O’Neal was among the many watching Tuesday night when the young Timberwolves stunned the history-chasing Golden State Warriors at home with a 124-117 overtime win.

The performance took a message the Timberwolves have been saying locally for two months – that a downtrodden franchise is turning the corner on the backs of the best compilation of young talent in the league – and blared it through the megaphone of a nationally televised triumph over the defending champions that dealt a blow to Golden State’s pursuit of the NBA’s single-season wins record.

“Like I told our guys before the game, very few opportunities do you get the chance, when you’re not a playoff team, to do something special,” Wolves interim coach Sam Mitchell said. “And I thought tonight, against this team, with this crowd in this arena, just proud of our guys.”

It was just the sixth national TV game of the season for Minnesota, one of the worst teams in the Western Conference. Playing in a small market and wearing a name on their chests that has been synonymous with failure for more than a decade, it was easy to see why so many have been slow to notice what is building.

In Andrew Wiggins and Towns, the Wolves have the last two No. 1 overall draft picks, both of whom have shown signs of being able to carry a franchise. They also have second-year guard Zach LaVine, who has won two straight slam dunk titles and solidified himself as a starting-caliber shooting guard in his second season.

Point guard Ricky Rubio is playing the best basketball of his five-year career and Gorgui Dieng has blossomed alongside Towns in the frontcourt.

“The talent they have is foundational,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in March when Golden State escaped Minnesota with a five-point win. “Sometimes you have some good, young players you can’t figure out what you’re going to do with them all. With this group, the pieces fit. Keep them together, let them grow.”

The Wolves have four players 21 or younger – Wiggins (20.8 points per game), Towns (18.2), LaVine (13.9) and Tyus Jones (4.2) – accounting for 54.4 points and 101.1 minutes per game. Those numbers dwarf any other group of similarly aged players on one team in NBA history and there have certainly been growing pains.

The Wolves went through a miserable stretch from late December into mid-January, losing 14 of 15 games as they struggled to balance youthful energy and inexperience while also playing veterans like Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Martin.

At the All-Star break, the Wolves turned the team over to the pups. The new starting lineup of Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, Towns and Dieng is 10-13.

The group has struggled mightily on defense, and there has been inconsistency while they learn how to play together. But there are also nights like Tuesday in Oakland, when Wiggins, Towns and Shabazz Muhammad helped Minnesota outscore Golden State 52-33 over the final 18 minutes of the game and snap the Warriors’ 114-game win streak when they held a lead of 15 points or more.

There is still a lot of work to be done. The bench needs serious help, owner Glen Taylor has to decide on Mitchell’s future and the young players have to figure out how to play consistently. The league’s longest-running playoff drought will reach 12 years this season.

But the core is in place. That much was clear on Tuesday night.

“It means a lot to us,” Wiggins said. “It’s a process. It’s not just one game for us. This game is leading into the future, leads into all the games next year. It’s a big game for us because they didn’t lay down. They were up 15, they were up 17, and we kept fighting. They’re playing for history and we’re just trying to get in the way of it.”

Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter: http://twitter.com/APKrawczynski

Westbrook says he’s ‘all-in on whatever it takes for this team to win’

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Welcome to NBA media day, when optimism overflows and everyone swears there are no chemistry problems, no fit questions, it’s all puppies and rainbows with their team.

The night before Lakers media day, Russell Westbrook got a head start on saying the right thing in an interview with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Trade? Not worried about it. Fit? Not going to be a problem. Everyone is good now if you ask Westbrook, and he was in trade talks all summer is irrelevant.

“I need to just do my job. Whether I’m wanted [by the Lakers] or not doesn’t really matter. I think the most important thing is that I show up for work and I do the job like I’ve always done it: Be professional and go out and play my ass off and compete…

Maybe [he is] as a starter or maybe it’s off the bench. “I’m all-in on whatever it takes for this team to win,” Westbrook said. “I’m prepared for whatever comes my way.”

Words are nice, but actions are what will matter. Westbrook reportedly said all the right things to LeBron James and Anthony Davis a year ago before getting traded to the team, but his not wanting to play a role and fit in was a big issue. Westbrook swears it won’t be this time, whatever Ham wants Westbrook will execute.

“There’s so much optimism on how we can be great, how AD, LeBron, myself — can be unstoppable in my opinion,” Westbrook said.

That’s optimism. Even if Westbrook fits in, Davis stays healthy all season, and LeBron continues to defy father time, these Lakers are not title contenders. A playoff team for sure, but not contenders.

These Lakers will face adversity — maybe early, Los Angeles has a rough first couple of weeks — and how the Lakers, under new coach Darvin Ham, respond to those challenges will define their season. Last season’s response from the Lakers was… not good. They rolled over. Ham has promised not to let that happen, but there will be things out of his control.

Last season Westbrook was one of those things for Frank Vogel, we’ll see how he responds this season.

Suns, Crowder agree he will sit out training camp while they seek a trade

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Jae Crowder wants out of Phoenix and the Suns have been looking for a trade to accommodate that.

It hasn’t come together, so the Suns and Crowder agreed he should sit out training camp while they find one (this team does not need another distraction in camp).

We knew this was coming because Crowder himself announced it a couple of days ago. While he deleted the Tweet, nothing ever completely disappears online.

Two quick thoughts on this news.

First, it means Cameron Johnson will start at the four, something that was likely anyway as the Suns look to add shooting to help space the floor.

Second, this news does not help the Suns’ leverage in getting a trade. It’s understandable that Crowder didn’t want to be in camp and that the Suns didn’t want the distraction, but now everyone knows the pressure on the Suns to get a deal done and they will lowball their offer.

There are a few potential landing spots out there. Crowder hinted online he would welcome a return to Miami, and the Heat need help at the four after P.J. Tucker left for Philly. The Heat would base a trade around Duncan Robinson, but to make the salaries match the Suns would have to throw in another player — Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Torey Craig or after Jan. 15  — and that seems unlikely.

Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Boston (but it’s tough to make the salaries match up), and even a team like Minnesota could work. The challenge is the Suns are a win-now team and will want a player who can help them this season and all those teams are in the same space. Right now there may not be an offer available. As camps open and teams start to understand what they do and don’t have, a deal could come together.

Crowder will be home waiting for that to happen, not with the Suns team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says Stephen Curry is the best player in the world

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the top of pretty much every “best player in the world” list right now.

Except his own.

For Antetokounmpo, the best player in the world is the one that leads his team to the title, so today, it is Stephen Curry (hat tip to Lance Allen of NBC Milwaukee).

It’s easy to see where Antetokounmpo is coming from, but basketball is a team game. The best player may not be on the best team, despite his skill set, and that team may not win. Curry was spectacular in leading the Warriors to their fourth banner since he arrived, he’s near the top of the best in the world list, but it’s not all about winning.

The takeaway from what Antetokounmpo said is how much he wants to win — he wants a second ring.

The Bucks enter the season as one of the favorites to win that ring, but it’s going to take a lot of things going right for that to happen.

Including Antetokounmpo showing he is the best player in the world.

 

Is Matisse Thybulle ready for a big step forward with 76ers?

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Matisse Thybulle brings a valuable NBA skill to the table — he is an elite perimeter defender. Two-time All-Defensive Team in three years in the league.

But when the 76ers got up against Miami in the playoffs, Thybulle’s role shrank dramatically. While Doc Rivers needed his defense, Thybulle’s lack of an offensive game became a problem — the Heat largely ignored him and helped off him, allowing Miami to muck up the Philly offense (he was limited in the Toronto series because he was not vaccinated and could not play in road games). The 76ers tried to solve that problem this offseason by bringing in DeAnthony Melton, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker — solid role-playing defenders who can contribute on offense, too.

Thybulle wants to be part of the solution, too, and told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer he spent the summer focused on his offensive game.

“I’m really proud of what I did,” Thybulle said of his offseason. “I’ve worked harder than I’ve worked. And I had a meeting with [Sixers coach Doc Rivers] early this week and was telling him I feel more bought in than I’ve been before.”

No doubt Thybulle put in the work, we will find out soon if it paid off — and if that will get Thybulle paid.

Thybulle is entering a contract year — the 76ers can extend him up until Oct. 18, after which he would become a restricted free agent next summer. Thybulle said his goal is to remain in Philadelphia (and he’d like an extension).

“At this point, I would always want to stay in Philly,” he said. “And if it’s up to me, that’s always going to be my choice.

“But considering that I’ve realized the reality of how far out of my control it is, if I do get traded or something does end up happening, I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day.”

With a win-now Sixers team, Daryl Morey may be in a wait-and-see place with Thybulle, letting the market set his price next offseason. If he signs now, it will likely be on a team-friendly deal (but maybe one that still works for the 25-year-old).

If Thybulle gets on the court this season and shows an improved offensive game, one where he can make teams pay for helping off him, his price goes up and there may be multiple teams bidding for his services next summer. And Doc Rivers would be happy in the short term.

It’s up to Thybulle to prove it now.