That slow, steady beeping sound you hear is the Minnesota Timberwolves registering on the national basketball radar for the first time in more than 15 years.
Forty-six regular-season wins may have flooded over the emaciated expectations of the Wolves diehards, and perhaps raised an eyebrow or two in a stray outer province among the NBA punditry and player alumni. And a play-in victory over the Clips served as decent finger food before the real repast of playoff hoops commenced with the first round. But for those protecting their safe spaces in the upper echelon of gossip-mongering and social media splashing, you could still get by with the Cliffs Notes on Minnesota: Karl-Anthony Towns can shoot but still might be soft, and Anthony Edwards looks like a baller — hey, maybe even a consistent one someday.
But hold on now. Just what happened on Saturday?
Sure, few folks regarded the Memphis Grizzlies as genuine silver medal material for putting up the second-best record in the entire 30-team NBA. But to have the Timberwolves come into Ja Morant’s house and thump them by double-digits, 131-117, requires some reconnaissance from those who watched the game, and maybe a few other games that have involved this Timberwolves team.
Aggression approaching arrogance
Saturday’s outcome was not too good to be true. For those with enough context to fashion realistic hope from accompanying clues, this Wolves triumph was less surreal good fortune than plausible ascendance. Minnesota is a well-coached team featuring two rising stars with complementary skill sets, a demi-star who burns opponents just often enough to compel their attention, a catalyst with an incandescent spirit, and a camaraderie-driven batch of role players. It remains a relatively nascent concoction that can sputter but is mostly quickening. They took advantage of Grizzlies rust and dictated some favorable matchup scenarios that put fiber in their confident notion that they can beat this opponent four times in at most seven games.
In other words, this win was the opposite of a fluke. The Wolves played with purpose and tenacity. It was a relatively tight game — the 13-point margin of victory was just one off the Wolves’ largest lead — but they clung to what was often just a two-or-three possession advantage for 45 of the 48 minutes, allowing Memphis to surge ahead for just 32 seconds midway through the second quarter.
They made 24 of their 27 free throws (the starters didn’t miss in 18 attempts) and upended a supposed Grizzlies advantage by out-rebounding Memphis 46-35.
Before the game, coach Chris Finch was asked whether he cautioned his team about being too chippy and amped up for a contest that featured two young, confident squads who both have been known to play with a swagger. Finch’s answer was matter-of-factly defiant. He left little doubt that he wanted the Wolves to play with an edge. What wasn’t said, but was embedded in his answer, was his faith that his team could compete with aggression approaching arrogance without losing its composure. His team indeed found that balance on Saturday.
These first two games of the first-round mark my rare appearances as a member of the traveling media, and in Memphis the contingent from the Wolves beat are sitting above the basket about two-thirds of the way up in FedEx Forum. The bird’s eye view provides less intimacy but a better chance to watch how the players array themselves in their schemes at both ends of the court.
The vantage was especially rewarding when the Wolves spread the floor in half-court sets on offense, or variously flared and converged on pick-and-roll plays. It was also instructive to watch the player movement on isolation plays that gave the ball-handler options on utilizing picks, hitting cutters or seizing on the misdirection when the defense reacted to the movement. On defense, the reverse was true, of course, in terms of watching how the Wolves responded to the Grizzlies’ package of offense, which mostly meant learning how Minnesota was determined to make life difficult for Ja Morant, even as Morant himself continually split Minnesota’s “high wall” alignment and tried to finish at the rim.
What follows are the takeaways from an eminently satisfying Wolves victory and an important step forward in the quest to get past the first round of the playoffs for only the second time in the franchise’s 33-year history.
Ant rises to the moment
Anthony Edwards has now laid waste to the first two postseason games of his fledgling career. In each one, he immediately introduced an element of unguardable dominance that couldn’t help but provide sustenance for his teammates and instill at least a smidgen of doubt in his foes. In the play-in game versus the Clippers, it was 7 points in the first 2:05 on his way to 30 for the game. On Saturday he was superior to that.
Yes, there were points — 5 in the first 1:50 with a midrange chaser less than two minutes later. But now Ant was going to fiddle with the D in a different way. With the Grizzlies stacked up to stop him, he proceeded to issue three dimes within a minute. The first was a zipped jump pass to Patrick Beverley as Ant was halfway through a supposed shot surrounded by four defenders. The second as a spin dish to KAT in the middle of the court after Ant dragged a double team and three trailing defenders — the whole floor tilted — to the left on a mere nonchalant dribble. And the third was a high pick-and-roll with KAT where both defenders followed Ant dribbling left, enabling his rightward bounce pass to hit KAT in stride for a layup and-1.
If you’re scoring at home and/or believe in slot machines, that’s 7 Ant points off three jumpers and another 7 points off three Ant assists, all within the first 7 minutes of the game (6:55 to be precise).
I guess we should mention Ant’s two-handed flush 28 seconds after that third dime. He finished the first quarter with 13 points and sustained a level of canny decision-making that is frankly more surprising and more valuable moving forward than his phenomenal scoring prowess.
The cliché is that Ant “takes what the game gives him.” The truth is that Ant demands that teams go to extraordinary lengths to take things away from him, which in turn opens new creative options for him. The game is only “giving” him what his skills and strategic acumen have purchased.
On Saturday, he finished with 36 points that included some ridiculously difficult jump shots, and eight free throws in eight attempts. He had six assists, three rebounds, a steal and a pair of blocks. And while the defensive matchup data on the advanced box scores at nba.com are not a totally reliable snapshot of who guards who at what time, it does say that Ant was second only to PatBev in guarding Morant and that he was the only player who held him to less than 50% shooting from the field. Ja was 2-for-8 with Ant as his primary defender, and 6-for-10 against everyone else.
Here is where we put in the pinch-me reminder that Ant is 20 years old. He walked into the postgame press conference in a pre-Easter beachwear outfit that looked like it was filched from Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island, and casually let it be known that, during the game, an 8-year old kid in the crowd yelled out that he sucked. It is going to be fun watching a country of hoops fans and media get to know him as the Wolves become more prominent on the national scene. They’ll learn that regular contact provides a beguiling mixture of homespun wisdom and awesome hilarity.
KAT banishes the doldrums
While previewing the Grizzlies series in my last column, I wrote the biggest x-factor would be “how well KAT can recover and hopefully thrive after his dreadful performance” in the play-in game. Truth be told, I had my doubts. Yes, the Clippers have personnel uniquely suited to stymie KAT. But under the circumstances, what happens between his ears becomes nearly as important as what happens around him. And the play-in game was hardly reassuring in that regard.
It quickly became apparent that this cynicism was an overreaction; not the first time this breakthrough season where my long history covering a less mature Towns shortchanged the strides he has made in his mental toughness and self-awareness. Next time any errors in my judgment will be on the side of generosity.
It is quite possible that KAT would have returned to this year’s vintage form even if Memphis had decided to guard him primarily with their large, mobile power forward, Jaren Jackson, Jr., and used their stout-but-slow center Stephen Adams as a help defender. At times, the flow of play did produce that dynamic, but there was still a bevy of occasions where the presence of Adams on the court prevented the rapid traps and chaos-inducing rotations among frontcourt personnel that flummoxes KAT.
In any case, after not making a field goal in the entire first half against the Clippers, KAT was 5-for-8 in the first quarter alone on Saturday, and any residual unease from his play-in pratfall was long gone. When the game was over, not only did KAT have an efficient 29 points on 18 shots, but his 13 rebounds were the main reason the Wolves were able to wipe out a supposed Grizzlies advantage. Best of all, he didn’t pick up his first foul until there was 3:38 remaining in the third quarter, meaning he could play physically aggressive while mentally unfettered through the entire game.
By contrast, Adams was shut out: zero points on zero shots, with just three rebounds and zero blocks (he did have 3 assists) in 24:04 of play, almost exactly half the 48-minute game. Memphis was minus 13 when he was on the court and broke even in the 23:56 he sat.
To be fair to Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins, Jackson was not in peak form either, and battled foul trouble for much of the game. But the Grizzlies have a plethora of quick, rugged forwards who have traditionally given the Wolves fits, including Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke. Ironically, when Memphis made its most sustained run of the game in the second period, it was by going super small, with Clarke and forward Kyle Anderson, and Finch could be second-guessed for leaving backup center Naz Reid in too long rather than matching up with Jarred Vanderbilt at center opposite Clarke.
These are the types of adjustments that add a chess-like dimension to the NBA playoffs. It remains to be seen if Jenkins reduces the use of Adams moving forward, or goes super-small again when Naz is on the floor. But the decision to deploy Adams, especially early in the game, when KAT was turning the page on memories of the play-in, feels like Memphis unilaterally let KAT off the hook without testing him.
Malik Beasley’s new way to be a hero
Remember back to the early February trade deadline, where a parlor game among Wolves fans was figuring out what mediocre player Minnesota should acquire by trading Malik Beasley? An unfortunate chunk of those same fans now argues against retaining president of basketball operations Sachin Gupta because he “hasn’t done anything” to buttress his credentials for the position. Well, except resisting the urge to unload then-unpopular players like Beasley and Taurean Prince. If the players Gupta would have theoretically received in any deadline deals had performed like Beasley and Prince performed after the deadline, Gupta would be hailed for his aggressive savvy.
But I digress. The point at the moment is that Beasley is playing the best basketball of his life. A predominant reason for that is how he has redefined and broadened how he can best impact the game.
The neon in Beasley’s game stems from the speed and accuracy with which he splashes three-point shots. From shoulders to toes, the fundamentals of his stroke are elite. Few can dash to the corner and dance the tightrope between the arc and the end line for the catch, twist and release with such intensely balletic efficiency. Fewer still can retain that rhythm even when the feed doesn’t land in the pocket.
In the opening possession of the second quarter on Saturday, point guard D’Angelo Russell, concerned about Memphis jumping the passing lane, whipped the ball well behind Beasley as he was getting to his spot in the right slot above the break of the arc. The effect was akin to a football wide receiver reaching behind him on a pass over the middle. But Beasley gathered it in with an extended left arm to catch it in stride, compensated for the split-second hitch in timing, and banged home the trey.
That’s classic Beasley, making big splashes. For most of his tenure with the Wolves, that was the way he carried himself, with a boom-or-bust recklessness that extended to his defense. No one would ever accuse him of lacking hustle; the problem was that he took heedless angles on rotations and closeouts that frequently did more harm than good. When it worked it looked heroic, but more often than not it just screwed up the cohesion required for defensive synergy. Not coincidentally, during his partial first season with the Wolves and for all of his second season, the Wolves had their worst or second-worst team defensive rating in the minutes he logged.
But that guy is kaput. The new Beasley has toned the jets just a tad and relies on peripheral vision and more judicious action far more frequently. Along with the intangibles that are an unexplained part of any defensive metrics, channeling the hustle has worked wonders in his defensive acumen. Among the eight players who have averaged at least 20 minutes per game since the All-Star break, the Wolves have had their best defensive rating when Beasley is on the court.
That’s huge, of course, but the refinements haven’t stopped there. The reason Beasley was the tradeable guy du jour back at the February deadline was because he started the season in a horrible shooting slump. A proud player who has always maintained he performs better when starting and then logging copious minutes, he struggled in a sixth-man role. Being the old, bull-headed, boom-or-bust Beasley, he doubled down and became more of a ball hog and more of a strictly three-point specialist. And from October through January, his true shooting percentage — which gives due credit to the three-pointers that dominate his shot chart — was below the NBA average.
On a team with Ant and KAT wowing the masses — while the spidery versatility of Jaden McDaniels and the go-go choreography of Jordan McLaughlin charmed the egg-headed hoops junkies — the reimagination of Malik Beasley was a stealth jackpot in the Wolves’ resourceful quickening after the All-Star break. Along with the miraculous improvement on defense just mentioned, he became deadly again from distance, converting 45.2% of his treys and bumping his true shooting percentage from 51.1 before the break to 66.3 afterward.
Some of that uptick was just a reversion to the mean — a shooter of Beasley’s caliber doesn’t stay cold forever — but some of it was, again, a more considered approach. Beasley is never going to stack dimes, but he quite obviously became less of a ball-stopper and likely doubled the frequency of his “hockey assists” as a conduit in the passing flow along the perimeter.
Saturday’s playoff opener was the quintessential coming out party for the new Beasley, who consistently figured out what his team needed in the moment and was rewarded with more playing time than any other backcourt player, including DLo and PatBev. His 23 points in 30 minutes ranked third to Ant’s 36 and KAT’s 29, with the majority coming from his bread and butter, four treys on 10 attempts.
But the refinements also loomed large. The team needed gang rebounding to counteract the Grizzlies’ supposed advantage, especially on the defensive glass, and Beasley corralled five boards, four of them defensive rebounds. That sustained the momentum of his 6-rebound performance in the play-in game against the Clips. Meanwhile, his defense was again not an outlier but a cohesive component of the Wolves’ schemes.
Ironically, however, what stood out was Beasley’s 4-for-4 shooting performance inside the three-point arc. On the first one, the Wolves had secured the offensive rebound off a missed trey and began to swing the ball around. When it came to Beasley, Memphis defender Desmond Bane sold out rushing to stop the shot. It didn’t even require an up fake for Beas to blow by him and finish the layup before the Grizzlies could re-establish their half-court assignments. The second two-pointer happened because Beasley raced down the floor to join PatBev after the latter had executed a steal. PatBev pulled up for a three-pointer that clanked; Beasley grabbed the rebound between two defenders and executed the put-back.
The final two-pointer also came out of chaos, a busted play where PatBev lost the ball and dove to retrieve it, getting it to a teammate while still prone on the court. Sensing a turnover late in the game, the Grizzlies had already begun their transition up the court. Beasley, who had been camped in the corner, broke for the basket and was fed by KAT for a wide-open layup.
What these plays have in common is elevated court awareness and wiser decision-making. Beasley is still primarily a three-point marksman. But he has come to understand that some situations require smaller booms in order to eliminate the busts.
Chris Finch rarely talks about his team’s success in personal terms. But in reflecting on the Wolves’ growth at the end of the regular season, he noted that many people have told him that the Wolves play an enjoyable brand of basketball. “I’ve very proud of that,” he said.
The roster is spangled with riveting personalities, from Ant to KAT to PatBev and onward. The style of play is fast-paced and aggressive: Nobody scored more points than the Timberwolves this season. Consequently, if the Wolves continue to give the second-seeded Grizzlies all they can handle here in the playoffs, the frontrunners will swoon, discovering this unlikely interloper to their postseason narrative.
The last Wolves team to make the playoffs was in 2017-18 when they squeaked in as the 8th seed on the 82nd game of the regular season, then were served as mincemeat to James Harden and the top-seeded Rockets, who executed the “gentleman’s sweep” in five games. Nobody expected much out of those Wolves, including then-coach and president of basketball operations, Tom Thibodeau, who was still feverishly collecting old Chicago Bulls down the homestretch of the season. Derrick Rose, who logged a mere nine regular-season games, was an important focal point of the playoff picture and given much more of a green light to create for himself than KAT, or anybody but Jimmy Butler, for that matter.
These Wolves have been allowed to quicken together, slow-cooked for savory, synergistic, subtle nutrition. Yes, they are an enjoyable team to watch. And one that will no longer be taken for granted.
Need more Wolves? Join Britt Robson for a Q&A session on Monday, April 18 ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Grizzlies. The event is free and open to anyone, but registration is required.