When the mascot Crunch handed Timberwolves combo guard Patrick Beverley the air-powered cannon used to launch t-shirts into the Target Center audience last Monday night, there was a gleam of pride and mischief in PatBev’s eyes that sums up the incongruously gritty and giddy magic that this Wolves team has conjured as the 2021-22 NBA season has unfolded.
The old phrase, “crazy like a fox,” was seemingly coined for Beverley. His motivations are sourced in mania yet channeled with the calculation of a civil engineer — someone who understands that an occasional meltdown or mishap has to be factored into the equation. PatBev wants to call attention to himself in the same way that a surfing instructor tackles a 40-foot wave, so that his students will not only screw up the courage to take on a smaller whitecap but listen with rapt respect as he tells them how to negotiate it safely. If they see him stunt himself into the churn of the ocean and come up with a rueful smile, so much the better.
But the physical sacrifices add up. At this point, it is prudent to count on Beverley, who at 33 is at least six years older than every other player on the Wolves 15-man roster, to miss about 30% of his team’s games due to wear and tear on various body parts.
But even when he is in street clothes, he is a peripatetic presence on the sidelines, verbally badgering the refs and opposing players on a play-by-play basis, at least when he isn’t shouting encouragement or at-the-moment instruction to teammates or casually buttonholing a member of the Target Center wait-staff for a food or drink order, tipping generously with a wadded bill from his pants pocket, as he did last Saturday night, when he was out due to an ankle injury.
Hated … and loved
But on Monday PatBev was suited up and ready to go. Point guard D’Angelo Russell was hobbling from a sore hamstring and became the second member of the “Big 3” ruled out of this rematch with the Portland Trailblazers, joining Anthony Edwards, who recently, and belatedly, has decided to rest his chronically sore knee.
As the rest of his uniformed teammates were in the early stages of their pregame routines, Beverley made a beeline toward two of the three refs who would be officiating that night’s contest as they were standing together near center court. They responded warmly to his effusive greeting — the handshakes and shoulder touches that are inherent to PatBev’s tactile style of human relations.
The friendly relations PatBev enjoys with the majority of officials around the NBA might seem jarring at first. There is no delicate way to put this, but there are times — rare but indelible — when he is a dirty player; when his mania to seize upon psychological and physical advantages that push the limits of the rule book tips over into cheap shots. Most notoriously, it happens when the stakes are high and all other options have been exhausted, as when Beverley took a running start and shoved Chris Paul in the back during a timeout in the closing minute of a game that eliminated PatBev’s Clippers from the playoffs last June.
Bottom line, Beverley is a villain to some NBA fanbases. He is detested by many in various markets who have nursed a grudge over some past incident that gets reignited by any new infraction. By contrast, he is also cherished by many fans of the teams for which he has recently played.
Why would the refs countenance such a player? Because PatBev’s competitive need to surf right along the cusp of fair play requires an acute understanding of the rules, situations and overall tenor of the game as it plays itself out. And that gives him a unique appreciation for the swirling, thankless context in which NBA refs must operate.
He takes care to remind them of this appreciation. At least once every couple of games, he will quickly raise his hand and nod his head at the ref who has whistled him for a foul. Other times, in the midst of argument, he will abruptly change his mind and concede his wrongdoing, occasionally adding a little slap on the rear of the ref as an insouciant means of atonement. Sometimes he will stop a teammate from arguing too vociferously, signaling that he knows the ref is right. In a parallel vein, when PatBev does argue a call, it often has merit — the ref’s decision is either a borderline judgment or an outright error.
In response, the refs give him his due. It is easy to respect a defender who guards a much taller player, and Beverley specializes in neutralizing those who tower over him by crowding out their center of gravity and contesting the shot, dribble or pass in the earliest stages of its development. And it is likewise easy to grant a small player the whistle when he places himself in the path of a marauding opponent dribble-penetrating his way toward the hoop. Which is why Beverley is routinely among the NBA leaders in drawing charging fouls.
Even more noteworthy, PatBev has perfected the “low swipe,” a darting, perfectly-timed lunge across a ball-handler’s body that poke-checks the ball out of his possession. To be successful, it must be done with absolute precision, with as little time as possible spent in the ball-handler’s path, where all but the most incidental body contact is a certain foul. It is Beverley’s signature move, and the absence of whistles amid the savagery is almost always remarkable. And yet slow-motion replays usually show that a no-call is the correct decision.
Last but not least, you can’t discount the calculation of Beverley’s roguish charm. He is audacious in many ways, including his study and knowledge of human nature. He understands the fine distinctions that separate a cunning rascal from, well, an asshole.
T-shirt cannon diplomacy
On Monday night at Target Center, the rascal was reveling in his milieu. The Timberwolves were blowing out the Blazers by better than 30 points early in the fourth quarter when the crowd spontaneously started doing the wave. Beverley and the Wolves best player and lone All-Star, Karl-Anthony Towns, were clearly done playing for the night and ready for some impish bonding with the crowd. After a couple of rounds, they linked arms and timed the wave’s movement through their section, joyously flailing their arms upward. Next time around, many of their teammates joined in.
A ball was swatted out of bounds past the endline by the Timberwolves bench. Beverley raced up a couple of rows and clapped his hands as a signal to the fan who caught it to pass it to him. When that happened, he suddenly chucked the ball back into the crowd and quickly demanded it back as the audience roared. The officials weren’t in the mood to assess a delay-of-game infraction in a lop-sided contest that had swelled the Wolves lead past 40.
During a subsequent timeout, PatBev started tossing t-shirts, each taped together in a ball for maximum flight, up into the audience. That’s when Crunch sauntered over with the t-shirt cannon, and Beverley’s visage lit up with delight tempered by uncertainty, like a kid in junior high offered a swig of whiskey. When Crunch allowed Beverley to hold the gun, the gleam took hold, and when one or the other pressed the trigger and shirt went flying into a higher deck with a terse pfffft! Beverley flinched instinctively and then broke into a giddy smile.
A (very) brief history of recent Wolves success
The win, the second in a row over a depleted and frankly tanking Portland team, was the Wolves fifth in a row, the third time this season they have amassed a streak of that length. They will go for a season-high six-straight tonight at Target Center against another downtrodden opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The last time the Timberwolves were this successful was four years ago, when the Wolves clinched the 8th and final seed of the playoffs with a season-finale win over Denver and were summarily stomped by Houston in the first round of the postseason.
That was a very good team with a fragile foundation. Then coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau had populated the roster with his favorite players from his previous stint with the Chicago Bulls, including Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose. It was a culture that was imposed, whole cloth, on the locker room, one that quietly and then openly denigrated the due diligence and teamwork of two of the three players Thibs was brought in to develop: Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. (The third, Zach LaVine, was traded as part of a package to acquire Butler.)
The next offseason, Butler permanently fractured the team by requesting a trade in increasingly obnoxious fashion. The fidelity of Thibs to Butler and the shade he thus cast on KAT cost him his job by January. The momentum from the Wolves first playoff berth in 14 years was stillborn. (Ironically, it was a rift over the contract of Latrell Sprewell, supported by Sam Cassell, which tore the loyalty of Kevin Garnett between the organization and his teammates, that ended the Timberwolves string of playoff appearances under KG in 2004.)
This background is what makes the 2021-22 season particularly satisfying. Heading into the season, it was no secret that max-salary players KAT and D’Angelo Russell needed to team with second-year sensation Anthony Edwards to create an offense that would be dynamic enough to be among the top five in the NBA while playing at least average defense. Through various ups and downs, that is exactly what has happened.
The Wolves won with defense for the first six weeks or so of the season. It was an aggressive, electrifying style of play that traded brawn and conservatism for wiry, antic opportunism. Instituting such a significant change during the preseason compelled head coach Chris Finch to ignore the offense, figuring that it could run on automatic pilot.
Progress on offense was halted in mid-to-late December by disruptions due to COVID, sidelining the Wolves entire starting five at one point and leading to a stretch where the team dropped five of six games. After a loss to the Lakers on Jan. 2nd, the won-lost record stood at 16-20, which was not too shabby by the Wolves past standards. Indeed, grabbing one of the last two spots of the ten available and thus being able to participate in a play-in game for the postseason seemed like a distinct possibility.
Building a foundation
Since then, the Wolves have peeled off 21 victories in 30 games, the seventh-best record in the 30-team NBA. They battled through a January that included just four home games, none of them less than a week apart, making the entire month a de facto road trip with no time to settle in. No matter: They won 9 of 15.
They won 6 of 9 in February before the All Star break, and came out of the break facing a brutal four-game stretch where every opponent had an existing record that would earn a top-four playoff seed in their respective conferences. They won 3 of those 4 games. Next up was a series of cupcakes: five games against opponents obviously bound for the lottery, auguring for draft pick placement as much as wins. They have summarily dispatched the first three games, winning by an average margin of 31 points.
Thirty games is more than a third of a season. In the thirty games since January 3rd, the Wolves have the best offensive rating (points scored per possession) in the NBA, and the 15th best defensive rating (points allowed per possession). They have the third best net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating).
All these gaudy numbers are noteworthy but somewhat distracting from the overall point of the team’s ascension, glowing like an accurate but still over-sufficient amount of candles on a celebratory cake.
What matters here is that the Wolves have a foundation. Finch has proven in his first full season on the job that he is one of brightest and most adroit coaches in the NBA. KAT has matured into a player whose most impressive stat is in the standings and not among the scoring leaders. The defensive adjustment that allows him to do what he thinks he does best at that end of the court, combined with his winning the three-point shooting contest and making the All Star team after two years absence has enabled him to relax into himself. Freed from the stigma of the Thibs-Butler years and the catcalls about “empty stats,” his leadership style is less strained and more knowledgeable.
D’Angelo Russell is thriving in a system that puts him both on and off the ball on offense, puts PatBev on the opponent’s tougher perimeter scorer, and looks for him to be the alpha scorer in crunchtime, a role DLo has seized in a manner that has silenced debate on the subject. Meanwhile, Edwards has been able to progress at his own pace while demonstrating the top end of his spellbinding potential. That the team has continued to win despite his recent absence is good for both player and team.
And the role players have come to the fore. After a dreadful start, Malik Beasley is sharpshooting to the tune of 40.3% on 7.4 three-point attempts per game since Jan. 3. With the steady, supportive hand of Finch, Jaden McDaniels has regained his confidence and turned into the kind of versatile, two-way performer that any team would love to have at age 21. The bench has featured a roulette wheel of highlights from the likes of Jordan McLaughlin, Taurean Prince, Naz Reid and Jaylen Nowell, three of them developmental projects on cheap long-term contracts.
‘Even our mistakes are interesting’
After the Wolves had demolished Portland by 43 points, 124-81, on Monday night, Finch noted the increasingly festive crowds at Target Center and stated the obvious.
“I think this is a team that a lot of people like to watch play. We play hard, we share the ball. We’re pretty exciting. Even our mistakes are interesting,” he said of the squad that is 7th in assists and second in pace of play since January 3. “It feels like we’ve got something going here and we just have to keep building on it. First thing we wanted to be was competitive and relevant and after that just keep building it up. We’re nowhere near where we need to be. But we’re creating a pretty nice home court advantage.”
When I asked Finch to define team chemistry in my interview with him last summer, he demurred at first, saying, “I don’t know if I have a definition for chemistry. It is this thing that exists and you know it when you have it. But you can help in building it and that’s the cool part.
“You know you have it when that team expects to win that night rather than hoping to win.”
Right on cue, Josh Okogie described the mood of the team after the Portland win in this way: “We’re coming into the game expecting to win now.”
As for the catalyst of this chemistry, we’ll turn to Naz Reid. Ater the Portland game, he was asked how a team that previously had played down to the caliber of the opponent had acquired the drive and discipline to take care of business more effectively.
“I think who sets the tone for that is our leader, PatBev. I mean, every night he is telling us to lock in. The little details are the big details and he seems to understand that. He tells everybody to focus, focus, no matter who that opponent is. We try to get in and get out, get the W. No playing around. I mean, that goes to him.”