Over the course of the 82-game grind of an NBA regular season, basketball teams across the spectrum will produce an assortment of hiccups and hallelujahs that are inexplicable.
So it was that 48 hours after being psychologically shredded by the NBA-worst Detroit Pistons on Saturday night, the Minnesota Timberwolves came back to thump a Denver Nuggets team that had lost just two of 12 games since Dec. 8 and featured reigning two-time MVP, Nikola Jokic.
The loss to the Pistons was the Wolves’ sixth in a row, and so rife with disease you’d swear a swarm of tsetse flies had invaded the huddle in the second half.
Against Detroit, Minnesota led by 18 points in the second quarter, 14 at the half. After demonstrating their superior talent, they went into death wish mode, allowing the woeful Pistons, who came in with a won-lost record of 9-29, to go on separate runs of 11-3, 8-2, and 15-3 in the third quarter alone, and then two more runs, of 15-2 and 7-0, in the final stanza. The boos from the fans who came to celebrate New Year’s Eve at Target Center felt insufficient.
Contributions from the end of the bench
The resilient triumph over a quality opponent on Monday night was not redemption – the Wolves are still 1-6 in their most recent seven games, and a massively disappointing 17-21 thus far in the 2022-23 season – so much as a temporary reprieve. It wasn’t ridiculous to suppose that the Wolves had their most talented roster in the 34-year history of the franchise coming into this season. But after waiting fruitless weeks for this team to “figure it out,” everyone is coming to grips with the distinct possibility that there may be no “it” to figure with this corrosively ill-fitting crew.
Some key players in the rotation – All Star Karl-Anthony Towns, synergistic backup point guard Jordan McLaughlin and veteran swingman Taurean Prince –have been out for weeks now. On Monday night, starting point guard D’Angelo Russell and ascendant backup center-forward Naz Reid joined them on the sidelines. Did these absences help or hurt the Wolves ability to salve what should have been still-grisly scars from the loss to the Pistons and become the better team when it mattered for a change?
Was it a coincidence that a Wolves team that had led at halftime in five of the six games of their losing streak, swung the Monday night upset of Denver decisively in their favor with a predominance of “scrubs” on the court in a span that bridged the end of the third through the middle of the fourth quarter? With 3:08 remaining in the third and Denver up by three, Luka Garza joined Matt Ryan and Nathan Knight in the lineup alongside veteran backup Austin Rivers and cornerstone Anthony Edwards. When the trio exited together with 6:47 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Wolves were up by eight, having outscored the Nuggets 25-14 during their 9:55 stint.
Prior to Monday night, Knight, Ryan and Garza had played together in a handful of brief garbage-time moments – less than 10 minutes spread out over five games. Even after getting extended burn on Monday, they currently rank 13th, 15th and 16th, respectively, in minutes-played on the team. But they did what eager subs are hopefully supposed to do: flew around the court with exhaustive energy, physicality and purpose.
During the postgame presser, Pioneer Press beat writer Jace Frederick asked head coach Chris Finch if that spark from the end of his bench would give him more freedom to “shuffle the deck” on player rotations, as Finch had said would happen in the aftermath of the humbling loss to Detroit.
“No doubt, 100%,” Finch replied, grateful to deliver another shot across the bow to his too-often indolent core talent. “This is it. When you see guys go out and contribute and everyone compete, it leaves us with some tough choices, but it is what the team will want; they’ll want to see that effort and that performance and that production being rewarded.”
Yes, that’s a staunch response, but as anyone who has followed the Wolves for any length of time, it can also be a pantomime pronouncement for a floundering team. At this point, no one knows whether this stirring victory over a Denver team that had won a tough game against Boston the night before while the Wolves rested is firm ground for a genuine pivot toward sustained competence or just the latest caprice in the hiccup-hallelujah sine wave of the NBA season.
More from Jaden McDaniels
Whichever way it goes, one can realistically lower their sights on the perceived peak of this season. Folks have to get used to the idea that even if the big gamble of bringing Rudy Gobert in to pair with KAT turns out to have been a dreadful miscalculation, the carnage from the Gobert trade will have to be much more prolonged and extensive before such painful admissions are made, scapegoats are identified and a recalibration commences.
Meanwhile, there are legitimate reasons for hope and joy taking place and they stem from the performance of the two young starters still on their rookie contracts: Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels.
While Ant rightfully gets the ballyhoo, there is a significant segment of the hoops-viewing public that wrongfully wonders if even the scant praise and solid lineup presence that McDaniels is accorded oversells his contributions. They’ll point to his relatively low profile and occasional disappearance on the floor, his paltry rebounding totals on a team that desperately needs to corral more caroms at both ends of the court, his proclivity for amassing fouls because he is being bullied or acting out of spite and his lackluster scoring.
There is merit to some of that criticism but ignorance informs most of it. Specifically, it ignores how difficult it is to be a role player on a drift-less team still seeking a successful identity and reliable style of play. Under the circumstances, McDaniels has had a marvelous season thus far as the versatile wing stopper on defense and complementary, increasingly versatile, outlet on offense.
Finch has always been McDaniels’ biggest champion, successfully goading him to broaden his game while using words and schemes that help bolster his confidence. After he torched the Nuggets on Monday by hitting nine of 10 shots Finch listed all the ways he can score – “he can cut, crash (the boards), make a spot three, (and) play off the catch. But if the ball doesn’t move, those things don’t come to life for him. It is kind of a barometer for our offensive ball movement.”
Finch went out to say that the Wolves had only lost a couple of game when McDaniels had 10 shots or more. The actual record is 8-5. But perhaps more revealing is that they are 0-6 when he shoots five times or less, and 0-5 when he plays less than 24 minutes (those losses partially but not completely overlap) and have won just once in the three games he has missed due to injury.
After playing a majority of his minutes as a 185-pound power forward his first two NBA seasons, the acquisition of Gobert and free-agent signing of Kyle Anderson has enabled McDaniels to pick on people more his own size at the small forward slot. But he is still the most likely defensive matchup for the opponents’ best scorer, even when it the mammoth Zion Williamson from New Orleans, whom McDaniels held in check for a half before Zion flexed his 99-pound weight advantage to steamroll him and the Wolves after intermission.
The knock on McDaniels being foul prone has credence – he reaches with his hands too much and lets his temper trigger some “revenge fouls” on occasion. But he stands out on a team mostly bereft of solid perimeter defenders. Given that he is designed to be on the floor with the opponents’ top scorers, often surrounded by three subpar defenders (KAT, Ant, and D’Angelo Russell), it is significant that the Wolves have allowed 111.4 points per 100 possessions in the 1069 minutes he has played this season and 112 points per 100 possessions in the 760 minutes he’s been on the sidelines.
But the real eye-opening this season has been on offense. As a rookie, McDaniels was often consigned to being a three-point shooter – it comprised 54% of his field-goal attempts, per basketball-reference.com. When Finch arrived he encouraged more movement off the ball and more shots off the dribble and the frequency of treys in his shot mix was lowered to 45.5% last season and 34.9% thus far this season despite the fact that he naturally plays more on the perimeter.
Coming into this season, McDaniels was regarded as a distant fifth option in a high-powered offense that featured KAT, Ant, DLo and Gobert. It has been a tonic to watch him maximize those opportunities with an aggressive competence that earns him the right to call his own number off the bounce more frequently. He has stayed within his role – his 10.1 shots per 36 minutes is actually a tick below last year’s career-high of 11.1 shots per 36 minutes – while bolstering his accuracy across the board. His 38.1% on treys and 61.2% on twos are both career highs, providing him with a gaudy true shooting percentage of 61.7, well above his previous career-best of 55.3.
Last but not least, McDaniels is simply more fun to watch at the offensive end of the court. It was always a treat to see him space and measure his matchup on defense. But now we are also treated to ferocious dunks, foxtrot Eurosteps, properly-gauged races beating the blocker to the backboard, and an assortment of pull-ups and floaters where we appreciate all of his 6-foot, 9-inch length. Oh, and he’s dropping more dimes during all this – 2.1 per game compared to his previous best of 1.7.
After the game on Monday, I noted how much his bags of tricks had deepened over the course of his career and asked if he’d always had this much game on offense or whether he developed more of it over the past two off-seasons. McDaniels, who is playfully infamous among the Wolves beat-writing crew for his terse, redundant responses, and unfurled a sly, satisfied smile, and said that he’d always had that deep bag.
Put it all together and you have a player who is actually underrated. There are nine members of the Wolves roster who have currently played more than 500 minutes this season. Nobody has a better net rating – the difference between how many points the team scores versus how many the team allows per possession when they are on the court – than Jaden McDaniels. He’s three months past his 22nd birthday.
It’s Ant’s team now
As good as McDaniels has been, the most positive aspect of the Wolves 2022-23 season thus far has been the emergence of Ant as the team leader. His charismatic personality and phenomenal athleticism were immediately galvanizing, transforming him into the “face of the franchise” before the end of his rookie season. But this next step is more consequential: He is now the burden-bearer of the team’s fortunes, the proper focus of attention when games are on the line.
Would this have happened if the Gobert fit was more synergistic and/or if KAT had been healthy for a greater portion of this season? Inevitably it would have, but not as rapidly. As we watch Ant elevate to meet the responsibility, however, that relative void in leadership he is filling seems like a silver lining, if not a blessing in disguise.
The tension between giving Ant totally free rein and keeping enough structure to concentrate the arc of his development is worth a column of its own someday. But Monday’s win over Denver was the sweet spot in that tension that both player and franchise should aspire to right now.
Ant opened the game moving the ball, the first principle of any Finch offense. He took and missed a pair of three-pointers, one wide open, the other in the final two seconds of the shot clock. More importantly, he grabbed four first quarter rebounds, addressing the predominant flaw during the Wolves six-game losing streak. And he added two assists, both on drive-and-kick plays that have become a significant staple of his game, and an important gateway to team success the more his stardom magnetizing opposing defenders.
In the second quarter he unsuccessfully tried to get his own shot rhythm, missing five of seven attempts. But he did get to the line four times in the period, grabbed three more rebounds and tacked on two more assists, this time more polished dimes that including hitting Kyle Anderson in rhythm for a layup and then a left-handed bounce pass in transition that found McDaniels in stride for a slam.
As with a lack of rebounding, pratfalls in the third quarter have been a hallmark of losing for the Wolves these past two weeks. And once again, Ant made it a personal point of emphasis. When the scrubs came in during the final four minutes of the period, he leveraged their hustle on rebounding and defense to execute tunnel vision, seeking to score by any means necessary. He launched six shots in the final 3:40 of the quarter, made four, including a pair of pull-up treys and two driving layups that, as with his lay-up misses, had him chirping at the refs for not also giving him free throws.
For the first time in a long while, the Wolves had survived the third quarter with their lead relatively intact. As is his savvy norm, Ant gave much of the credit to others for his sudden predominance in the period. Asked about seizing the game late in the third, he cited the encouragement of his teammates.
“They tell me, ‘Hey it is time to take over,’” he said, shouting out Kyle Anderson in particular. Then he added, “Someone told me going into the third quarter after this time, ‘Alright, take this game over.’”
After the game I asked Finch, who has frequently called Ant a “home run hitter,” whether there are times when he has to take over like that. At first he demurred. “That is actually something I think he need to use more prudently; sometimes we go to it too much. He has the ability to do it and we don’t want to it away from him. But we did talk in the timeouts about getting away from that and getting back to moving the ball. He owned it and he was one of the first guys to move the ball.”
Presumably in the fourth quarter.
In the locker room, everyone was predictably excited and relieved over ending the losing streak. Ant was again ingenious with his praise, crediting Finch with shepherding him through point guard duties with both DLo and J-Mac out with injuries.
“Finchy did a great job. He was calling plays. I’m not your typical point guard, so he’s got to help me out sometimes. I don’t know what to run because sometimes I might call something that is going to be for me. But he was helping me throughout the game.”
One interesting note on that subject was the person who co-facilitated the offense with Ant on Monday. When KAT and then Gobert went down, the backcourt duo of Ant and DLo both flourished at first and used the absence of KAT’s usage to eat together. But on Monday, with DLo out, Kyle Anderson was the other de facto “point guard,” and racked up eight assists.
DLo is generally regarded around the league as a point guard, a perception he takes great pains to avoid, continually emphasizing that he is in fact a “combo guard,” and giving Ant credit recently for taking over some of the playmaking so he can better express himself on the court that way. By contrast, the 6-foot, 9-inch Anderson with the impossibly long arms is generally regarded as a combo forward. But after the game Monday he sought to avoid that perception in the other direction, saying – and not for the first time – “I’m a point guard. That’s my natural position.”
The difference here is usage. Anerson uses 14.6% of his team’s plays over the course of his career, and 14% thus far this season. DLo’s usage is 27.7% for his career, and a career-low 22.6% this season. He is trying to circumscribe himself, but it is an effort and his contract expires at the end of this season.
When Ant wants to play off the ball, Anderson happily reverts back to his “natural position.” But when Ant wants to take over, Anderson and his meager usage are not discomfited by it. This isn’t to say that Anderson should be the primary co-facilitator, or that DLo shouldn’t be. But as Ant’s stardom and team-bearing load increases, everyone—from Finch to DLo – need to get more comfortable with the increased room he uses.
After the game, I asked Anderson – who played three years the dominant backcourt star Ja Morant in Memphis and four years in the famously egalitarian Spurs system—if you need a guy in the modern NBA who can take over a game like Ant did in the third quarter.
“One-hundred percent,” he enthused. “You need a run stopper, you need a closer to win in this league, for sure. He is becoming that guy for us and he was in the playoffs last year. We need him to be that.”