The box score proclaims that Karl-Anthony Towns had a fabulous game Monday night against the New Orleans Pelicans. The numbers were shiny and gritty in all the right places: 32 points, 14 rebounds — 6 on the offensive glass — and 7 assists. In the 39:36 KAT was on the court, his Minnesota Timberwolves outscored the Pels by 8 points. In the 8:24 that he sat, New Orleans had an overwhelming 17-point advantage, posting their first win of the 2021-22 season while delivering the Wolves their first loss, 107-98.
But this is Karl-Anthony Towns, so it was not that simple. Yes, KAT’s performance against the Pelicans galvanized finesse and sinew in a package that showcased his overall value to the team. But KAT’s performance for the three refs Monday night goaded petulantly for entitlement, enacting an operatic recital that showcased his ongoing immaturity in year seven of his NBA career.
The longstanding wish here is to dwell upon the versatile majesty of KAT’s shot-making, nod approvingly at his diligent effort to fulfill a defensive role for which he is not well-suited, and allow a bit of corny sentiment regarding his emergence from a covid-induced hellscape to soak up some of the stray cynicism lingering from his history of botched public relations. But an honest appraisal of the current circumstances requires revisiting some of his familiar foibles.
Let’s get into the sordid details. Less than two minutes into the game, KAT caught an outlet pass from Josh Okogie in stride just over the half-court line and barreled his way toward the rim. One of the larger, stronger leviathans KAT is forced to joust with on the NBA circuit, Jonas Valanciunas, was there to greet him. There was more than incidental contact — initiated by KAT but at least slightly reciprocated by JV — as the shot went awry and KAT tumbled into a heap on his back beneath the basket, hands already outstretched in plea as his head instantly swiveled toward the ref, bemoaning the absence of a foul call.
As those precious seconds elapsed, the Wolves were forced to play 5-on-4 in transition. The Pels missed the wide-open three-pointer that resulted, but as D’Angelo Russell was settling in under the rebound with no opponent within arm’s length, the late-coming KAT was determined to make a belated impact on the possession, and knocked the ball out of bounds.
Less than two minutes after that, KAT alertly tracked an errant shot so that his offensive rebound gave him momentum going sideways through the lane. As he squared himself for a short jumper, Valanciunas came over to contest, committing a debatable but probable foul. Except that KAT’s body language exaggerated the contact and the refs swallowed their whistle as the shot went through the hoop. KAT lets the refs have it.
Less than two minutes after that, KAT ambushed JV with a quick spin down the baseline, forcing him to foul with a deft hug as KAT continued beneath the basket for a reverse layup. But the refs denied the continuation, claiming the foul negated the shot.
Yup, less than two minutes later, KAT followed a shimmy dribble faced-up with Valanciunas with an aggressive, Euro-stepped move that had no lift but instead saw his appendages go akimbo at first contact, physically begging the whistle that never came. This time, the outstretched plea quickly morphed into a frustrated arm swipe and some barked words that earned KAT his second technical foul in three games and had the crowd chanting, “refs you suck!”
By now, the bait-and-bitch between KAT and the officials was being dramatized on every play. When he and Valanciunas bumped into each other as JV neared the three-point arc, KAT lurched backward. When Pels rookie Herbert Jones grabbed his shirt when KAT started to head back in transition, KAT snapped his head back as if being pushed instead of pulled. Before the Pels initiated their half-court set, KAT and JV again bumped chests for no reason, both flailing back slightly as Towns got called for his first personal foul of the game as teammate Pat Beverley came over to try and calm him down.
But KAT immediately got a whistled for an offensive foul on a screen where he appeared to be in position. It was a ticky-tack call even if he was a split-second late, and Wolves coach Chris Finch got a technical for protesting as KAT headed to the bench.
Everything just described occurred within the first eight minutes and 37 seconds of the game. When KAT left the Wolves were down by one. When he returned less than two minutes into the second quarter, they trailed by 13.
Less than 48 hours earlier, KAT fouling out (and earning a technical foul in the process) with more than six minutes remaining in the game against these same Pelicans transformed a comfortable victory into a fraught affair. Three of those fouls occurred when KAT was on offense, continuing an unfortunate, career-long trend of him getting called for bad timing and/or positioning on screens, and for overestimating the amount he gets unfairly bullied (as opposed to legitimately bullied) when defending and thus believing he has liberty when going for buckets at the other end.
In the postgame presser on Saturday night, Finch — who throughout the preseason preached about avoiding fouls and who warned about failing to get back on defense due to debates with the refs — would only say that KAT gets called for more offensive fouls than any star player in the league.
Then KAT came to the postgame podium. With regard to fouls, he said, “If we’re going to get a little foul here and there over physicality while building our identity and our culture, then that has to be what it is.”
Asked specifically about Finch’s comment and what part of offensive fouls he can control, he replied, “I’m going to keep playing physical. I didn’t put all this muscle on for no reason. So I’m going to keep commanding attention from the defense and let the game play out.” Although he later added that he needed to get in better position and not have to fight so much, that automatic reaction was the more telling response, as it mimicked KAT’s thought process on the court.
It is a moot point whether these types of comments betray an absence of self-awareness or too much self-awareness. They are of a piece with KAT saying on Media Day that he takes all the blame from and gives all the credit to his teammates, or his more recent remark that he prepares for games this season by watching videos of gorillas battling each other. In instances like this, the impression KAT seeks to convey — and thinks he is implanting — are almost 180 degrees off the mark.
To state the obvious, comments about credit and blame require specifics to have any merit whatsoever, because it lets the listener know you care enough about accountability in team dynamics to drill down on the details and not take short-cuts.
As for the gorillas, if KAT thinks brute force should be prioritizing his defensive acumen, he is calibrating his skill set exactly backwards. Bully ball is not his ally; he continually comes up wanting in that department and it pisses him off, leading him to assign blame elsewhere, usually at the refs, who literally make a living watching players try to compromise their judgments through verbal umbrage, physical overreactions and abject martyrdom.
The refs are well-versed on every trick in the book. They know exactly how a player wobbles or lands when legitimately hit compared to a swan dive from a conniving diva. And, even more damaging to the actor, if a player gets legitimately hit but adds mustard to sell the call, the ref is thus more likely to swallow the whistle. In a similar vein, if a player has an arena full of people chanting profanities at the ref, the subsequent twitches, tremors and flops become doubly insulting for trying to increase the invective. By human nature, the ref is going to consciously or subconsciously log the insult and respond accordingly on the next bang-bang judgment call.
In other words, when has one of these all-too-common “KAT versus the refs” games ever been good for the Wolves?
Shelve the histrionics and KAT is one of the most enjoyable players to watch in the entire NBA. He’s not an athletic dazzler, or otherwise a physical force of nature, but he’s got a sweet, quick release that can be unfurled on a step-back three-pointer, a pick-and-rolled floater, and a catch-and-shoot from pretty much anywhere on the court. In the paint or along the baselines, his footwork is efficient and creative, enhanced by his accuracy shooting with either hand, and his timing on cuts straight up the gut are always a joy to behold and regretfully less frequent than in the early years of his career.
KAT has become a better passer, especially when he lays off the sidearm sling and thinks before he dishes. And he has become a better defender, more cognizant of the preliminary work required to deny position and suss out an opponent’s tendency-oriented sets. He is also learning to strike a balance between making your presence known to the ball-handler and recovering to your assignment.
But when his self-image collides with reality, it can all fall apart. He strains for redemption, real or imagined, and gets physically and mentally out of sync. His decision-making falters, his attitude gets chippy, his attachment to drama escalates. He diminishes himself, and it’s an increasingly painful pattern to see as the years go by.
After Monday night’s game, it would have been wonderful instead of troubling to think about how vital KAT is to this team. How he so obviously needs help from a frontcourt bruiser or two added to the roster but battles valiantly nonetheless. How if D’Angelo Russell could be a playmaker in some shape or form — an accurate shooter, a productive passer, anything? — the Wolves might well be 3-0 regardless of last night’s first-quarter officiating woes.
And when Anthony Edwards comes to the postgame podium and criticizes KAT, DLo and himself for lack of better ball movement and not getting their teammates involved, it would be wonderful to give KAT a break. Instead of thinking, man, Ant has better timing at age 20 on when to speak out in a leadership capacity than KAT has demonstrated for most of his career, it would be nice to think, I appreciate what he’s doing, and DLo should be taking notes here, but six of KAT’s team-leading seven dimes culminated in three-pointers, the first two went to McDaniels and Beverley and the last five helped glide the flightpath for Ant himself.
Put simply, it would be wonderful, and a refreshing change of pace, to root for KAT. If only he didn’t make it so difficult.