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Finally! The Timberwolves team we thought we were getting at the beginning of the season has arrived

Timberwolves seem to gel as the season is down to the last five games.

Timberwolves guard Mike Conley dribbling the ball in the first quarter at the Golden 1 Center on Monday.
Timberwolves guard Mike Conley.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Before we inexorably wade our way into the sour bath of referee conspiracy theories, let’s turn our attention to the best stretch of basketball the Minnesota Timberwolves have displayed thus far this season as we head into the final five games of the 2022-23 NBA campaign.

The Wolves have finally found a way to synthesize their disparate skillsets into a cohesive framework, one that not only provides a template for their offensive and defensive schemes in the half-court matchups, but for the crucial transition game back-and-forth between offense and defense.

Point guard Mike Conley is the skeleton key that unlocks this team’s more unified, yet versatile mode of performance. His presence has belatedly allowed Head Coach Chris Finch to execute his vision for this roster as a group that can dominate opponents with size without losing the “fly around” zeal that fosters ball movement on offense and ball-containment on defense.

Without discounting the dynamic month of January when Anthony Edwards was the team’s primary playmaker, Finch naturally still preferred Conley’s more advanced decision-making on the ball. But with D’Angelo Russell traded and Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined since November with a severe calf strain, scoring alternatives to Ant were scarce, especially away from the paint. Conley felt out the situation with typical caution before filling the void with more aggressive shooting. He had double-digit point totals in just two of his first six games with the team and dished out 35 assists against just nine turnovers. Meanwhile, Ant was straining to carry the offense, jacking up more than twice as many shots as any of his teammates while making just 40.8% from the field and 32.4% from long range while committing 25 turnovers against 24 assists.

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Since then, Conley has hit double-digits in points 10 of the past 13 games. He is shooting more frequently and with more accuracy from beyond 10 feet compared to his role in Utah earlier this season. This conscious decision to shoot the spaces on the court when he would normally be passing has loosened up opposing defenses and quieted fears that swapping him in for D’Lo would significantly diminish the Wolves perimeter scoring capabilities. Conley still doesn’t shoot as often as D’Lo did when he was here, but the gap is narrower than expected and the efficiency is comparable. Where D’Lo averaged 17.9 points per game on 13.5 field goal attempts and an effective shooting percentage (weighting three-pointers) of 56.7, Conley is averaging 12.9 points per game on 9.8 field goal attempts and an effective shooting percentage of 55.3.

More significantly, although his assists (and turnovers) are down comparable to his pass-dominant role in Utah, Conley has made a huge impact on the style of play the Wolves are executing on offense. As Finch put it after the Wolves gutted out their fourth straight win Monday night in Sacramento, “Mike’s huge all the time, right? You just want the ball in his hands; you feel safe; he makes all the right plays.”

Some of this is just unquantifiable wisdom. In an excellent piece by Chris Hine in the Star Tribune earlier this week, Conley told Hine, “I have a better feel of the offense” and for the “areas on the floor where people are effective late in the game and also where people aren’t effective late in games, so I can stay away from certain actions late. It limits our turnovers.”

Points off turnovers

Since becoming head coach a little more than two years ago, Finch has prioritized ball movement and movement without the ball on offense, and an aggressive, ball-pressuring approach to defense. Consequently, one of the most important statistics to watch for how well the Wolves are executing his template is points generated off turnovers by both teams. Ceding points due to turnovers is one of the biggest dangers of Finch’s more spontaneous, “flow” oriented offense, and one of the key benefits of his hyperactive defense.

During the team’s recent four-game winning streak, the Wolves generated 19.5 points off opponents’ turnovers while ceding just 6.3 points off their own miscues –a phenomenal gap. If you can win the points-off-turnovers battle by 13.2 per game, you are going to be unbeatable.

On offense, the Wolves have achieved efficiency by putting the ball in the hands of players who best know what to do with it. During the month of March, the team leader in assists is Kyle (Slo Mo) Anderson, who has 95 dimes compared to just 25 turnovers. Second-most assists is Conley, with 59 compared to just 14 turnovers; then Jordan (J-Mac) McLaughlin with 49 assists and eight turnovers. All three players have superb court vision and a great strategic, anticipatory sense of execution. Both Slo Mo and Conley are also adept shooters from all over the court, which creates spacing and encourages movement off the ball.

Bottom line, an offensive culture is being created, one that eschews the baton-passing that so frequently happened when Ant and D’Lo comprised the backcourt, discovering who had the hot hand at what point in the game. It is also a culture that eschews the blatantly purposeful desire to “get Rudy the ball” or “feature KAT” in the offense. When the flow is in the rhythm that Finch intends, everyone is a more efficient playmaker.

The net effect of this efficiency is that the Wolves are second in the NBA is fewest points allowed off turnovers in the month of March, at exactly 13 per game. In the 61 games before the All Star break, they ranked 28th, allowing 18.8 points per game.

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The KAT and Gobert we’ve been waiting for

The presence of Conley has also fostered more activity and more teamwork on defense. Last Sunday, the Timberwolves held the reigning champion Golden State Warriors under 100 points for the first time in Golden State’s past 43 games. What made this feat especially noteworthy was that it was the second game back after four months off for KAT, meaning a re-immersion of the “double bigs” lineup that has to flourish, given that the Wolves acquired Gobert for three rotation players and five first-round draft picks.

Before KAT was injured in late November, a huge, unresolved question involved how the Wolves could adequately defend on the perimeter and in transition with two relatively slow bigs simultaneously on the court. The Warriors, who happen to boast the most explosive backcourt shooting tandem in NBA history, would seem to offer a stern test.

Without mentioning Conley or D’Lo by name, Finch revealed why he thinks the KAT/Gobert pairing stands a much better chance of success now than it did before KAT was injured.

“Some of the lineups we were playing with earlier in the season, we weren’t able to get to the matchups we wanted because sometimes we had guys we really couldn’t always put on the ball,” said Finch. “Now we have a multitude of guys we can put on the ball … Sometimes you have to hide players, but we don’t really have that anymore.”

It was no secret that the biggest weakness with D’Lo’s game here in Minnesota was an inability to sustain on-ball pressure, which is a staple virtue for players who operate in Finch’s preferred defensive schemes. Instead of having to “hide” D’Lo on the opponent’s least effective scorer or perimeter shooter, the presence of Conley and another player acquired in the D’Lo trade, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, enables Finch to vary his schemes according to the caliber and skill-sets of his opponent.

Even with D’Lo removed from the equation, however, the Wolves need dogged execution and rhythmic familiarity to make the “fly around” on-ball pressure strategy hum. It is encouraging that Gobert has been steadily getting acclimated to coming out more in coverage, either in a “high wall” scheme for pick-and-roll coverage, or simply flexing the defensive shell more frequently or indulging in switching to counteract certain opponents.

That said, the ability of the guards and wings – Conley, Ant, Jaden McDaniels, even Slo Mo and KAT – to dig in and sustain on-ball pressure either by remaining with the assignment or via crisp switches, will be vital to the KAT/Gobert grand experiment.

By the numbers, departing from the standard “drop” coverage Gobert is accustomed to, which ensures his elite rim protection, hurts the Wolves defensive efficiency. They are allowing 115.6 points per 100 possessions in March, compared to 113.2 points per 100 possessions overall this season. So, why not stay with what is tried-and-true for a three-time Defensive Player of the Year; the style that has been statistically more successful thus far?

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Two reasons. First, although it has been overhyped as a specific weakness to Gobert, rather than his Utah teammates, teams have enjoyed success spreading the floor in the playoffs, successfully lessening the need and thus effectiveness of his rim protection. Just as the Wolves were limited by having only a fly-around, high-wall scheme they could rely on last year in the postseason, they need a more versatile defensive arsenal in the playoffs, where potential weaknesses are hunted and then hammered.

Second, offense and defense do not operate in a vacuum. They morph into each other, which is why the back and forth movement of play is called transition. The flow and synergy of the Wolves offense, defense and transition play is best achieved if they sustain the high-activity schemes Finch prefers, while finding wrinkles in the system to feature the virtues of individual players.

The recent four-game winning streak that ended Wednesday in Phoenix best exemplified how that flow and synergy could occur. It featured not only KAT and Gobert but doubled-down on the double bigs by adding Naz Reid into the rotations. Now, four games is just a sample – and a pretty small one 75 games into the season. But KAT and Gobert is a project extending three seasons after this one, and the flash of competence we witnessed in the crucible of a heated playoff race was heartening. It was, I repeat, the best, most hopeful stretch of Wolves basketball thus far in the 2022-23 campaign.

The elephants (refs) in the room

Last but, alas, not least, we need to address what happened during and after the Wednesday night loss to the Suns. The first half of the game was, refreshingly, relatively whistle-free. Just 11 total fouls were called, resulting in a quick, clean 24 minutes of play that had the Wolves leading by three, and behind in foul shots by just two, five free throw attempts compared to seven for Phoenix.

The second half was much different. The Wolves were cited for a whopping 18 personal fouls, compared to 11 for Phoenix. In a game the Suns won by seven points, they shot 15 more free throws than the Wolves and converted 17 more. But there were consequences beyond the disparity at the charity stripe.

In the postgame presser, a peeved Chris Finch cited a play in the middle of the fourth quarter of a one-point game in which Suns center Deandre Ayton stuck out his elbow and clipped McDaniels as he was moving around Ayton’s screen. McDaniels was then whistled for a foul on barely incidental contact of Devin Booker as Booker was scoring on a floater in the paint. The foul was the fifth on McDaniels, compelling Finch to remove him from the game with nearly seven minutes left to avoid his premiere defender from picking up a disqualifying sixth foul with copious time left in the game. Meanwhile Booker completed the three point play – which would have been wiped out if Ayton had been whistled – by converting the foul shot.

Before and after that, a plethora of illegal screens and other offensive fouls were called throughout the second half. Although a few went against the Suns, the Wolves – and specifically Gobert – bore the brunt of it. Four of his five fouls – and thus four of his six turnovers – were offensive fouls in the second-half. A couple were legit. But a couple were specious and one in which the Wolves managed to isolate the 6’5” Booker as the defender on the 7’1” Gobert right in front of the basket was an absurd call, nullifying a guaranteed two points by citing incredibly soft contact that is universally accepted everywhere on the court, let alone in the heart of the painted area.

But after the game, Gobert said the quiet part out loud. After a couple of “bulls—” calls to clear his throat, he said, “It’s hard for me to think that (the referees) are not trying to help them win tonight. It is hard for me to think they didn’t try to help the Warriors win the other night or the Sacramento Kings the other night. It’s just so obvious … It’s disrespectful and it sucks, to be honest …We understand that we’re not the biggest of markets and we’re a team that you want to see (Suns player Kevin Durant) in the playoffs, Steph (Curry of the Warriors) in the playoffs, Lebron (James, of the Lakers, the Wolves opponent tonight) in the playoffs. Timberwolves are not there yet.”

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First, some context. The Wolves were at the end of a pressure-packed road trip in which they are battling for the playoffs. During the trip, and peaking on the day of the Suns game, a nasty flu virus swept through the team, forcing Taurean Prince not to play and putting the availability of Ant and Slo Mo in doubt right up until game time. On top of that, Gobert has been hit in the face numerous times this season without any review for a flagrant foul, sometimes right before or after his own fouls have been reviewed and occasionally ruled as flagrant.

No matter. To say that the league is manipulating the outcomes of games based on the audience desire to see certain players who are great and/or from major media markets in the postseason is unwise, if for no other reason than it feeds into some pernicious narratives that can’t help this franchise.

The Wolves lead the NBA in personal fouls called, technical fouls called, and player ejections this season. If you think that is a conspiracy against the Wolves, then you haven’t watched the rest of the NBA all season. Yes, there are players who regularly bait the refs – Draymond Green and Luka Doncic are two popular stars from this group. Both have accumulated enough technical fouls to either be suspended for a game or be on the brink of it.

The Wolves have a lot of players who complain and mouth off, including Gobert, Ant and KAT. Of these three, Ant probably has the greatest cause – he drives to the rim relentlessly and doesn’t always get a call due him. Otherwise, McDaniels gets a very tough whistle, with too many incidental contact calls that are influenced by the stars he is guarding and the many other times when he is fouling.

Bottom line, the Wolves are not being singled out for unfair calls. The sad truth is the overall caliber of officiating has been in decline the past few years and made worse by the increased cunning and nuance of players acting as if the contact is greater than it happened. Every team has been victimized by bad calls.

That Gobert’s comments provide a rallying cry for that victimization among his teammates, coaches and the Wolves fan base in general is damaging to the prospects of this organization. The Wolves historically have had a problem keeping their composure; and a small but significant chunk of the fan base, who deserve credit for sticking with a chronically inept franchise, are more than willing to distract themselves from the meat of the games to amplify the conspiracy.

Nobody is covered in glory here. Accountability for consistently bad officiating needs to be demonstrated. But the fact of the matter is that Gobert is a “handsy” player. He pushes opponents as much or more as anyone in the league. By contrast, Conley is a saint who has never received a technical foul, and for that reason gets the benefit of snap judgment calls as much or more than anyone in the NBA, especially when he is selling a borderline illegal screen by an opponent.

As I write this, the supposition is that Gobert will be heavily fined. Hopefully he will not be suspended (which, given that other players and coaches have called refs into question nearly as blatantly, would ironically prove his point).

Either way, it is time for this team, and its fans, to focus on the positive momentum that has been generated of late and don’t base your regard for the officiating on whether or not the Wolves win or lose. This shouldn’t have to be said, but believing that NBA games are “fixed” means you are wasting your time on it, so why participate?

This isn’t the kabuki theater of pro wrestling. This is honest competition without a pre-ordained outcome. Otherwise, what are we doing here?