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Optimism abounds following KAT’s ‘movie script return’ to the Timberwolves

For one night KAT and the Wolves had an answer to some of the questions that have increasingly been pockmarking our perception of this team, and his role on it.

Timberwolves forward Karl-Anthony Towns, right, driving to the basket as Atlanta Hawks center Onyeka Okongwu defends in the third quarter at Target Center on Wednesday.
Timberwolves forward Karl-Anthony Towns, right, driving to the basket as Atlanta Hawks center Onyeka Okongwu defends in the third quarter at Target Center on Wednesday.
Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

For all the buckets and accolades riven with tribulation and woe that he has amassed over his eight seasons in the NBA, Karl-Anthony Towns has been granted short shrift in the realm of pure, cleansing revelry.

If KAT wasn’t getting hazed by Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler or tasered to the marrow by COVID, he was too often punting away the punchlines of his frequently stirring on-court performances with exaggerated modesty, atonal aphorisms or two extra coats of earnestness.

But standing next to sideline reporter Lea B. Olsen Wednesday night after his game-winning free throws cinched the Minnesota Timberwolves gutsy win over the Atlanta Hawks in his first NBA action in 114 days, KAT’s intuitive mixture of giddy crowing and prop nonchalance was a basking that rang true to the moment.

“This is what movies (are) made of,” he said, rocking on his feet, head tilting and bobbing to accentuate each of the terse phrases that followed, his smile shellacked with joy. “Four months away, I come back, two free throws, don’t worry about it. I got that.”

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Indeed. For one night anyway, KAT and the Wolves had an answer to some of the questions that have increasingly been pockmarking our perception of this team, and his role on it, for weeks, if not months.

It’s as if he never stopped playing

As KAT’s late-November calf strain dragged on beyond the four to six weeks it was originally reported he would need to heal (a timeline he later disputed was always too optimistic), seismic changes were occurring within the Wolves. Anthony Edwards emerged as an all-star and alpha scorer, filling a void from KAT’s absence. The initially awkward fit of center Rudy Gobert’s well-established habits with the rhythms and rhymes of the rest of the roster began to reach some commonality. The explosive virtues and vices of D’Angelo Russell were swapped out in favor of the sage, remedial prowess Mike Conley could offer at point guard.

While the team acclimated itself to these new dynamics on a daily, trial-and-error basis, KAT continued to accumulate rust on the sidelines. Rumors born of wishful thinking had him belatedly coming back after the All Star break in late February, or for the last 15 games of the season beginning earlier this month. The longer he languished, the more logical it seemed that he would need to be integrated slowly into the fabric of the rotation, for the benefit of his own physical and circumstantial recalibration and the ongoing momentum of the status quo.

Early this week, the rumors became more credible as The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski published an interview with KAT on Monday, who hinted at an imminent return. A day later, the site reported KAT would play on Wednesday. KAT confirmed it in a game day interview with ESPN. Although not quoting him directly, ESPN reported, “Towns said he doesn’t anticipate any restrictions once he’s back.”

This is the sort of fabulist grandiosity that has plagued KAT in the past, and it was left to Head Coach Chris Finch to point out the obvious in how he would be handled: “Nobody misses more than 50 games without limitations” placed on their workload.

But Finch also didn’t flinch showing his faith in KAT, inserting him into the starting lineup and playing him in rotations with a wide variety of personnel, including multiple stints with and without Gobert on the floor.

Even more significant, as the Wolves emerged from a timeout down one point with 7.2 seconds left in the game, Finch called a play that inbounded the ball to KAT on the perimeter and cleared the floor for him to operate. It was a do-or-die gamble on a player who was enmeshed in his first taste of NBA caliber competition since the Monday after Thanksgiving.

KAT drove on Atlanta’s John Collins and the two became entangled to the point where they both seem to flop at the same time, hoping to draw a sympathetic whistle from the referees. It went KAT’s way, a judgment confirmed by the replay after the Hawks challenged the call.

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In his ESPN interview, KAT had essentially called his shot.

“I think anytime I step on the court I can make an impact. But specifically we’ve been struggling a lot right now with free throws, and I’ve always been a really good free throw shooter.”

There were 3.6 seconds left in the game when he went to the line. The first shot tied the score. The second one decided the outcome.

“Don’t worry about it. I got that,” KAT exclaimed.

The first words in Finch’s postgame press conference reiterated his faith in the star big man.

“That is obviously one of the beauties of KAT; you give him the ball in a lot of different places on the floor in high-leverage situations and he is going to get a clean look and get a lot of pressure on (defenses) to get the foul.”

Asked by the Strib’s Chris Hine if there was ever any doubt that he was going to put the ball in Towns’ hands for that last possession, Finch replied, “Not really, no.”

Go ‘big’ or go home

It was an exceptionally good night for Finch and president of basketball operations, Tim Connelly. Ever since the Wolves sacrificed a boatload of present and future resources to acquire Gobert and pair him with Towns, Finch and Connelly have steadfastly believed that by throwing a lineup containing two talent-laden bigs against opponents deploying the quicker, space-and-pace style of the modern NBA, they could make the other side blink first. Before KAT’s injury, the 21-game sample seemed to rebut that belief.

Despite a very easy opening schedule, the Wolves won just 10 of those 21 contests, and had trouble getting their size back to defend in transition. More surprisingly, they were often getting outrebounded and ceding way too many second-chance points. Turnovers were also an issue.

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Some of this could be chalked up to an inevitable adjustment period. But it was hard to deny how painful it was to see how many fundamental adjustments were required to accommodate a player who had cost so much to acquire. The ongoing growth of Ant and the expansion of Jaden McDaniels from a defensive stopper to a two-way player helped, as did the reliable play-making of forward Kyle “Slo Mo” Anderson and the stylistic switch from D’Lo to Conley. But the success or failure of the Gobert trade was always going to hinge on how much the Wolves can synergize the play of Gobert and KAT.

Indeed, that was the great subtext of how the Wolves would respond if and when KAT returned. Would they ride with the teamwork they had established in KAT’s absence in order to salvage a playoff or play-in position in the ridiculously jam-packed Western Conference standings, or would they prioritize getting as many reps as possible between the two bigs going forward and let the wins and losses come as they may during the final two and a half weeks of the regular season?

For one game at least, Finch had his cake with all the trimmings, and ate it too. Not only did the coach successfully slot Gobert and a theoretically rusty KAT together for 15 minutes over two rotations – periods in which the Wolves outscored the Hawks 43-35 – but he doubled-down on a double-big alignment by retaining backup center-forward Naz Reid in the rotation. A KAT/Naz frontcourt operated for slightly more than 11 minutes, during which the Wolves outscored the Hawks 29-24. And a Gobert/Reid frontcourt played together nearly 11 minutes, creating a 31-26 Wolves advantage.

Now, a couple of caveats. Pairing Reid with either Gobert or KAT in the frontcourt has previously been pretty disastrous this season. Before last night, when the Wolves deployed Gobert and Reid together for a total of 162 minutes, they had a net rating (points scored subtracted by points allowed per 100 possessions) of minus 16.9 points per 100 possessions, the worst net rating for any two-player combo sharing the court for more than 150 minutes thus far this season. And when KAT and Reid were paired prior to last night, the results were even worse: The Wolves were minus 20.7 points per 100 possessions in the 48 minutes they shared the court.

In addition, the Hawks are susceptible to being dominated by large frontcourts. There isn’t a player taller than 6’10” starting center Clint Capela on their roster, and their backup to Capela, Onyeka Okongwu, is 6’8”. That’s one reason why they allow the third-most points in the paint of any of the 30 NBA teams, and rank 22nd (26th since the All Star break) overall on defense.

All that said, you understand why Finch wants to keep Reid in the mix. Coming into the season he was regarded as an afterthought at best. But over the past three years he has sculpted his body into an italic of its former self – he’s leaner, edgier, and noticeably more electric. Yes, his defense can be dodgy – he just doesn’t have a knack for positioning in the half-court – and he is a confidence player who can careen from scintillating to sordid in his performance from rotation to rotation.

But after weeks of often grudging respect, Finch became a full-fledged convert last night, including Reid into his Gobert/KAT master plan.

“Naz was spectacular,” Finch raved in the postgame presser. “We’ve got to find a way to make the two-big lineup work. It has to be who we are these last eight games. We have the flexibility to go in a lot of different directions. But when a guy’s playing this well, he deserves to be out there in some form or fashion. It’s my job to figure it out.”

Playing five bigs

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What surely clinched Finch’s ardor was a decisive, two minute 50 second stretch in the fourth quarter in which the Wolves went on a 16-2 run, turning a 10-point deficit with 7:17 remaining in the game to a four-point lead with 4:27 to go. Reid ignited the run by cutting along the baseline from a one-handed slam off an interior feed from Gobert. He maintained it with an above-the-arc trey off a feed from Slo Mo. He put the Wolves back in the lead off a left-handed spin move that earned him free throws. And he helped close out the run by showing hard on a double-team of Hawks star Trae Young and then scrambling back to his man in time to steal Young’s bounce pass. In all, he racked up 13 points (half of his night’s total scoring), four rebounds and two steals while playing all but 1:18 of the final stanza.

The remarkable thing about that 16-2 run was that it came without the player Finch referred to as the Wolves “security blanket,” Conley, on the court. Instead, Finch went with a quintet of Gobert, Reid, Taurean Prince, McDaniels and Slo Mo. Gobert is 7’1”. Reid, Prince and McDaniels are 6’9”. Prince was the smallest Timberwolf on the court at 6’7”. Talk about playing big. It may be the largest quintet to grace the court in Wolves history.

After the game, Finch almost couldn’t contain his giddiness while imagining the goodness of figuring out how to keep at least one of his two favorite ball-handlers on the court for maximum effect at all times. A question about how Conley fits in with the two-bigs set-up sparked his revealing mindset on this.

“(Conley) is the perfect piece in my estimation,” Finch began. “He can make all the big plays; he can run the offense; he can get the ball to the guys when and where they need. He’s gonna make big shots.

“And Kyle too,” he said, expanding the circle. “The two bigs, other than a couple of spacing issues, I’m not worried about the functionality of it. It is literally the guards that have to retool themselves, a little bit. We can’t play long stretches without Kyle touching the ball just because he’s running to the wing, you know? And if that’s the case we’ve got to find better rotations for him. Obviously tonight he played point guard with that (two-bigs) lineup for a long, long time.”

Finding the right combinations for KAT and Gobert, individually and together, will be a key part of the experimentation process going forward. On Wednesday, per’s advanced box score of the game, Slo Mo was on the floor with Gobert for 32.8 minutes and with KAT for 14.6 minutes. Conley was on the floor with KAT 26.1 minutes and with Gobert for 18 minutes. The entire time Slo Mo shared the floor with KAT, Gobert was also on the floor. Obviously the pairing of Slo Mo and Gobert is the priority there. The same is true of Conley and KAT. Of the 18 minutes he logged with Gobert, KAT was also on the floor for 15 of them. To the extent Reid was paired with Gobert or KAT, he got more time with the designated partner of each of the two bigs.

The dynamics will certainly change when Ant returns from his ankle injury. They may or may not change when Jordan McLaughlin returns from an illness that kept him out on Wednesday.

The bottom line is that we have some answers as to what happens when KAT returns. The team moves forward with its original two-bigs plan, and has the option to accentuate it further by adding Reid as the second big when Gobert or KAT rest, and using the 6’9” Slo Mo as the point guard when Conley rests.

Meanwhile, a tough West Coast road trip begins this weekend, with games coming against the Warriors, Kings and Suns. Perhaps there will be more chances for KAT to revel in this new page of his, and the Timberwolves, 2022-23 season.