The Minnesota Timberwolves stooped to conquer the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night. Their max-salary point guard D’Angelo Russell had a dreadful game shooting the ball. Their max-salary center Karl-Anthony Towns was plagued by fouls and turnovers. The team overall didn’t move the ball or themselves with crisp collective purpose on offense and permitted too many open looks at the other end of the court.
“It wasn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination,” head coach Chris Finch said after the game.
And yet the Wolves won by 20 points. Their sporadic effort and inattentive execution were sufficient to wade through the dried husk of a Lakers roster that at the beginning of the season was heralded for its pedigree, its collective possession of multiple MVP awards and many dozens of All Star appearances.
The Lakers were a “super team,” a stack of awesome reputations constructed to appropriately represent in the glitzy West Coast Mecca of hoops. The Wolves were the punchline of a stale joke, the franchise from the frozen tundra, saddled with the worst winning percentage among all the other stumblebums in major team sports. The abiding question heading into this season was whether they could rouse from their perpetually prone position enough to wobble upright and then stoop and crawl toward respectability.
But one of the beauties of sports is its penchant for disabusing us of our smug conventional wisdom. While the star-studded Lakers fade like a nova that burned out light years ago, the ever-beleaguered Wolves have emerged as the best team in the NBA in the dozen games since the All Star break. They boast the second-best offensive rating (points scored per possession), the second-best defensive rating (points allowed per possession), the best net rating (points scored minus points allowed per possession), and, at 10-2, the best won-lost record.
A microcosm of these shifting fortunes is captured by the long-running feud between the Wolves’ Patrick Beverley and the Lakers’ Russell Westbrook, a pair of notorious trash-talkers new to their respective teams this season. When Westbrook air-balled a three-pointer in the waning minutes of Wednesday’s game, both Towns and Beverley blatantly mocked the missive. And at the end of the game, they arrogantly waved goodbye to Russ and the Lakers as they walked off the court.
This feisty attitude is nearly as rare as winning seasons to this Wolves franchise, and is indicative of the more prickly tone and culture that Beverley in particular has instilled among the players. Asked after the game by my former colleague Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic if he liked his players having such swagger, Finch struck an appropriate balance.
“I do. I like the fact that we have confidence; I like that we play with a lot of emotion. We also have to realize that we also have to kind of mature a little bit, like we’ve been there before. Because we have, at this point in the season we have.”
Facing a revealing stretch
But this overachieving Wolves outfit actually hasn’t been there yet — not really. Sure, the remarkable month-long slate of games since the All Star break has been a noteworthy and satisfying prelude. And granted, you can’t solve challenges you haven’t yet encountered. But beginning Sunday against the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, the Wolves enter a crucible where their final eleven games will be played for higher stakes against stiffer competition. How they perform as the pressure mounts and the jockeying for postseason positioning comes to a climatic resolution, with play-in games and playoff seeding, will reveal the depth of their confidence and the true tenor of their emotions beneath the swagger.
I have previously cited Finch’s answer when I asked him last summer for his definition of team chemistry. “I don’t know if I have a definition. 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.”
When the Wolves visited San Antonio to play the Spurs earlier this week a few days after their coach Gregg Popovich set the all-time NBA record for career victories, Pop lauded Finch for exactly that transformation in Minnesota.
“He’s turned them around,” Pop began. “This is an aggressive team. The big thing is — you can look at the analytics and they’ve done better at different things — but they believe they are a hell of a team. You might think that sounds trite, but teams can kind of fake it. They actually believe every night that they are going to go out and win.”
Thus far, anyway. Now comes a sterner test.
As of Thursday morning, the Wolves were in 7th place in the Western Conference with the goal of surmounting at least one team above them. In the past couple of years, the postseason has been altered so that, while the top six teams are seeded in the order of their finish, three extra games help determine the final two of the eight playoff spots. The 7th and 8th place teams play each other, with the winner receiving the 7th playoff seed. The loser of that game plays the winner of a game between the 9th and 10th place teams for the right to become the 8th playoff seed.
The Wolves currently hold a substantial five-and-a-half game lead over the 8th-place Clippers with only 11 games left for Minnesota and 10 remaining for the Clips, who are six-and-a-half games ahead of the 9th-place Lakers. In other words, it is a near-certainty that the worst the Wolves can do in the regular season is a 7th place finish. But that would still require that they either beat the 8th-place Clippers in their first “play-in” game, or face either the Lakers or the 10th-place New Orleans Pelicans in an elimination game to determine the 8th seed. Lose both games and they never even get to a first-round playoff series, despite their currently impressive record of 41-30.
To avoid the play-in games by achieving a 6th seed or better, they have to surmount the 6th place Denver Nuggets and/or one of the two teams tied for 4th and 5th place, the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz. They currently trail the Nuggets by a game-and-a-half (the Wolves have one fewer wins and two more losses than Denver) and Dallas and Utah by three games (two fewer wins, four more losses). They play Dallas twice — next Monday on the road and a week from Friday at Target Center — and Denver once, a road game two weeks from Friday.
That game in Denver will conclude a stretch where the Wolves play seven straight contests against teams with winning records: Milwaukee, Dallas, the NBA-leading Phoenix Suns, Dallas again, the red-hot Boston Celtics, the surging Toronto Raptors, and then the Nuggets. That’s an uphill climb to achieve a top six finish, even if only one of the final four regular season games is against a team with a winning record.
By contrast, only half of Denver’s 12 remaining games and six of Dallas’ 13 remaining games are against opponents with winning records. Utah has a tougher schedule — eight winning teams over its final 13 games — but no direct matchups with the Wolves that would alter their respective positions by a full game in one contest.
Evidence of things not seen (for Wolves fans, usually)
I began the season “cautiously optimistic” about the Wolves chances for progress from the abyss, figuring between 35 and 41 wins. Their next victory will surpass the top of that scale. I also predicted they would lose three of the four games in the brutal stretch coming immediately after the All Star break — instead they won three of four.
Since January 4, when roster disruptions due to COVID protocols finally ceased for the Wolves (if not for other teams), they have compiled the sixth-best record and the third-best net rating in the 30-team NBA over a 34-game span. That’s a significant sample size of quality hoops, that, as noted earlier, has only been trending upward since the All Star break.
Put simply, there is plenty of evidence to bolster the belief that the Wolves can not only survive but thrive in the crucible of the final three-and-a-half weeks of the season; that even if don’t climb into the top six, they can enrich their confidence before heading into the uncharted territory of do-or-die play-in games and then a first-round playoff series.
Here are the trending X factors to believe in Wolves goodness, for a change.
1. A new KAT
My bias is to discount ballyhooed events like KAT winning the three-point shooting contest during the All Star festivities and him going off for a career-high, franchise record 60 points against the Spurs last Monday night. I put more respect behind him backing up his contention that he could be more effective guarding pick-and-rolls at the leverage point and otherwise holding his own on defense away from the duties of rim protection. And I’ve appreciated his more dedicated attempts to keep his cool with the officials, avoid silly fouls overall, and engage in the dirty work required of an NBA big man even when it is not a part of his natural mien or approach to the game.
My error was underestimating how much the ballyhooed stuff means to KAT, as milestones of ratification and subsequent sources of confidence. Giving him credit for enduring the turnstile of coaching and personnel changes during his early years, plus the disrespect of Thibs and Jimmy Butler and finally the torrential woe of COVID-19, were, like the defense and dirty work just cited, examples of persistence through difficulty.
But KAT also needed acclaim. He needed his friend and teammate DLo and his supposed younger rival Ant to douse him with water, call him a unicorn, demand he try and get 40 points when he had 38. He needed Finch to tell him to go out and get 60 in the final minutes against San Antonio. He needed a trash-talking teammate like PatBev to have his back instead of spreading malicious gossip behind it. He needed a nation of viewers to note that, oh yeah, he is arguably the best-shooting big man to ever play the game.
Slowly but surely, then suddenly accelerated after the All Star break, KAT has come into himself as a whole leader, a team-best player whose words are now taken nearly as seriously as his actions.
Under the expert guidance of Finch, he is pushing the envelope on being the matchup nightmare for opponents. His offseason conditioning has given him foot speed off the dribble that continues to ambush defenders even as the scouting reports have told them to expect it. Yes, he occasionally still indulges bad habits — unnecessary, not-so-sneaky fouls, baiting of referees and the “stray voltage” of offensive infractions — but they are becoming less definitive of his play and more like peccadillos, in part because he’s earning an honest whistle.
As Finch put it after the Lakers game, in response to a question from my podcast partner Dane Moore about KAT’s enhanced ability to get to the free throw line: “KAT is getting the benefit of the doubt that he wasn’t getting before the All Star break. Probably going a little quicker, getting the defender in tougher spot. Staying stronger through the whole move rather than trying to sell the contact.”
Since the All Star break, only Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo have gotten to the free throw line more frequently than KAT, and neither of them can come close to KAT’s 39.7 shooting percentage on more than 1900 three-pointers over the course of his career. You crowd KAT at the arc he will blow by you for a slam. Keep a middle distance and he’ll up-fake a shot to see what part of his arsenal you are trying to stop. Give him room and that’s carte blanche for one of the game’s best long-range marksmen.
Consequently, KAT has made 61.7% of his twos, 40% of his threes and 84.3% of his nine free throws per game since the break. As with Embiid in Philadelphia and especially Nikola Jokic in Denver, it is viable if not preferable to put the ball in his hands in crunchtime, even with a proven clutch performer like DLo at the point. Having that extra option when it matters most is an ace in the hole.
2. Scoring in bunches
Since January 4, the Wolves have the most potent offense in the NBA by a pretty significant margin: 119.1 points scored per 100 possessions compared to Phoenix in second place at 117.6. (The NBA average for the season is 111.3.) The scoring versatility of KAT is certainly prominent in the mix, but so is the fact that the Wolves took and made more threes than any other team, and at the third-highest accuracy of 37.2%. Since the All Star break it is a scorching 42 percent.
Perhaps more than any other team, the Wolves have two units capable of scoring in bunches. With a Big 3 of KAT, DLo and Ant, the starting lineup is locked and loaded. Ant was scoreless through the first quarter on Wednesday; by halftime he had 23 points. DLo works well both on and off the ball, ideally complemented by Beverley who has made 39.8% of nearly five trey attempts per game since January 4 and 43.5% on 5.1 attempts since the All Star break.
The second unit has been on a tear for more than two months. It begins with point guard Jordan McLaughlin, who pushes the pace with an intelligent alacrity that perfectly suits Finch’s system and philosophy and puts the Wolves among the leaders in points scored in the first 10 seconds of a possession. The flamethrower is Malik Beasley, shooting 41.4% from deep on 7.5 shots per game since January and an unbelievable 49% on 8.3 attempts per game since the break. But with the possible exception of J-Mac himself, there isn’t anybody in the second unit that can comfortably be left unguarded outside the arc, including Jaden McDaniels (now out with a high ankle sprain), Taurean Prince, Jaylen Nowell and Naz Reid.
Finch defines it as confidence, but the more traditional definition of team chemistry also includes camaraderie. And without a doubt, this is the most tight-knit, mutually supportive Wolves roster from top to bottom that I’ve covered in 31 years on the beat. Each unit has an alpha veteran — Beverley among the starters, Prince for the bench group — that fosters strategic, supportive discussions about both mental makeup and the Xs and Os of the game.
The benefits of this togetherness have been stark throughout the season. Players are simultaneously more unselfish and more accountable with respect to their teammates, creating a synergistic relationship not only with each other but with Finch and the rest of the coaching staff. Without question Finch has created a healthy work environment. But the way the players have accepted the frequent changes in player rotations and substitutions — decisions that enhance and endanger careers — has been widespread and extraordinary.
A team to embrace
It of course remains to be seen if all this translates into even greater improvement in team play as we come down to crunchtime in the 2021-22 regular season. But thus far this has been a season and a team to embrace and savor, one that whets the appetite for meaningful hoops on the horizon.
“I think it is the right time for us,” Finch said after the homely dominance of the Lakers on Wednesday. “We’ve put ourselves in this position, 11 games over .500. I think we earned that, deserve that, but we know the competition gets a lot stiffer. But that’s what we want. We need that right now. This is kind of a little check under the hood, if you will, so we see what we’ve got to do as we get ready for this all-important stretch run going into the postseason.”