Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Tales from the play-in: Two stars and a sage

Wolves will need solid contributions from KAT, Ant and Conley to advance past Oklahoma City on Friday.

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

For the first time in what felt like a couple of forevers, the clutter was gone for Karl-Anthony Towns.

Ever since his Minnesota Timberwolves went out last summer and acquired a renowned player who performs at the same position where KAT had performed for the Wolves over the previous seven years, albeit in a very different way, a new template had been laid over his skill set. Suddenly a man whose shoe size is only slightly smaller than a clown’s was supposed to trip the light fantastic guarding smaller, speedier players more frequently on defense.

On offense, KAT is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses because his versatility enables him to take the man guarding him to a place on the court where he has the advantage. But this season he also had to contend with the fact that his new sidekick, Rudy Gobert, was himself a highly efficient scorer – provided Gobert stayed in the painted area (one of the many places KAT customarily feasted), and that his teammates got the ball to him according to his exacting idiosyncrasies.

The clutter extends to KAT’s Timberwolves legacy. His early career included an ongoing shuttle of personnel gurus and a carousel of coaches guiding the franchise’s misfortunes, with a heavy dollop of wrist injuries and COVID interventions poisoning the mix. He was bullied by the co-star (Jimmy Butler) who was supposed to mentor him with the approval of the coach/general manager (Tom Thibodeau) who was supposed to develop him. His ongoing need for validation prompted a tendency to dramatize when quietude was almost always the better option, discouraging the benefit of the doubt.

Article continues after advertisement

KAT is a three-time All Star with a super-max salary who has been with the Wolves at least four years longer than any of his teammates. Yet his eminence as the face of the franchise is cluttered, seemingly destined to be usurped by Anthony Edwards, the charismatic wunderkind who was the Wolves second No. 1 overall draft pick in 2020, five years after KAT. When KAT went down with a severe calf injury in late November, the elevation of Ant’s game hastened that future.

At his best, KAT is one of the best

In the second quarter of Minnesota’s final game of the 2022-23 regular season against New Orleans in a battle that would determine eighth place in the Western Conference, Gobert took himself out of the equation by punching teammate Kyle Anderson in the chest in the huddle after words were spoken. He was banished to the locker room, and then from the arena as play went on. The Wolves proceeded to rally from what was then a 12-point deficit to a five-point victory, fueled in large part by a torrid fourth-quarter stretch where KAT made three treys in 81 seconds.

Heading into Tuesday night’s play-in game against the Lakers, the Wolves suspended Gobert for the punch. Wing stopper Jaden McDaniels was also lost after breaking his hand punching a wall in frustration during the game. Toss in the absence of center-power forward Naz Reid, who broke his wrist earlier this month, and the Wolves were dreadfully short-handed against the rugged, star-studded Lakers frontcourt of Anthony Davis and Lebron James.

Just like that, KAT had an uncluttered field. He was the Wolves lone remaining big man of consequence, a linchpin in a gritty underdog story against an opponent who boasted the NBA’s second-best record after the All-Star break and were favored by at least eight points playing at home in LA. The best way for the Wolves to pull an upset was via accurate three-point shooting and KAT was the team’s most accomplished shooter from distance. It was almost impossible for KAT to emerge from this contest as a villain, yet there was a clear path toward heroism.

Bingo. The first half turned back the clock to when KAT was literally the game’s most coveted player, named two years in a row by NBA general managers as the person they would choose first to start a franchise. He scored 17 points without a miss – five field goals, one three-pointer, six free-throws. He grabbed six rebounds, doled out four assists, blocked two shots. In the 20:33 minutes he was on the court, the Wolves outscored the Lakers by 23. In the mere 3:27 minutes he was off the court, the Lakers outscored the Wolves by a dozen.

Then the fouls happened.

KAT had picked up two within 15 seconds of each other midway through the second quarter – an obvious charge into James and a dubious call guarding Davis in which his extended arm hurt his cause. Another obvious offensive foul – an arm into the neck of Laker defender Jarrett Vanderbilt – occurred four minutes into the second half. It was the fourth and fifth fouls that changed the complexion of the game. The fourth – only slightly deterring a driving James, just poor mechanics/decision-making – sent KAT to the bench with two minutes left in the third period. The fifth happened less than a minute after he was inserted back in with 9:21 remaining in the fourth quarter – a corralling of Davis while jousting for a rebound that Davis exaggerated to good effect, but a foul nonetheless.

After his invaluable first-half performance, KAT didn’t score after the 2:38 mark of the third period. More than that, he barely shot – a contested, above-the-break trey that hit the front iron with 3:38 to play in regulation and a step-back long two that missed in the final two minutes of regulation. He did not attempt a shot in overtime.

Article continues after advertisement

There were opportunities, small windows where he was relatively open with a clean look. And even when there wasn’t, not having KAT shoot is a de facto victory for the Laker defense and a dispiriting outcome for his teammates. Exhaustion visibly played a role in the entire team’s anemic offense down the stretch. But after the game, KAT said that his lack of aggression hunting points stemmed from a defender flopping to beggar the sixth foul that would put him out of the game.

“I think the fouls hurt a lot because, mentally, you don’t want to hurt your team. You want to be out there,” he told podcaster Dane Moore in the locker room. “You know you can impact the game and you just don’t want to have a flop happen, don’t even have to get a hit just to make a call. It changes the dynamic.”

Yes, it does. But that mindset also leaves you with a quiver full of arrows and no bow to leverage them. And, unfortunately, with the reappearance of clutter.

Hobbled and tired, Edwards struggled offensively

Immediately after Sunday’s stirring win over New Orleans, Edwards was asked about the upcoming Lakers tilt. He noted that the last time the two teams met, “I didn’t play my best; I played pretty bad, so I’m coming out with something to prove. I hope they’re ready. My teammates and me, we’re ready. We’re ready to go to war.”

It was a war of attrition, alright. But for the first time in his young career, Ant let the team down with a horrendous offensive performance.

A variety of factors were responsible. The Lakers concentrated their game plan on denying him space to survey and then penetrate off the dribble, deploying such capable personnel as the on-ball hound Vanderbilt and the imposing rim-protector Davis. Ant did successfully cut for a layup off an Anderson feed in the first quarter – his lone basket of the first half. But on three subsequent second-half drives, he was blocked twice and lost his footing once, fruitlessly tossing it toward the hoop as he hit the floor. In overtime he stole the ball and beat the Lakers down the floor in transition for a dunk. And he delivered a finger-roll bucket in charitable circumstances, with his team down 5 and less than 20 seconds to play.

Already missing Gobert and deprived of Ant’s inimitable knack to score at the rim – he was seventh in the entire NBA in points off drives this season – the Wolves were minus 18 (54 to 36) on points in the paint Tuesday night. But compounding the inefficiency was Ant’s inability to hit a jumper. He missed nine three-pointers and one long two-pointer, and precious few of them were even close. Consequently, the counter to creating space for drives was nonexistent.

A left shoulder ailment may have played a role here. Although the Wolves offense was still humming, it was out of character for Ant to launch only four shots in the first half. Video showed him flipping over two players going up too soon for a block late in the half, landing on his head, arm and shoulder, and when he came out for the second half that shoulder was taped. Jace Frederick of the Pioneer Press reported that when a teammate touched the shoulder during the game, Ant visibly winced. After the game, head coach Chris Finch said only that Ant was experiencing some cramping, and according to reporters in LA for the game, the locker room was closed before they could speak directly to Ant.

Article continues after advertisement

The final factor here is exhaustion.

Yes, Ant is a spry 21 years old, and led the NBA in minutes played this season without noticeable drop-off. But the absence of McDaniels put a lot more onus on him to play consistent, rugged defense, both on-ball and in frequent switches. And at that end of the floor, Ant delivered. His initial blanket coverage on D’Angelo Russell drove D’Lo to miss eight of nine shots and eventually put him on the bench.

When Ant was on the court the Wolves allowed only 100 points per 100 possessions, better than their sterling 100.9 points allowed per 100 possessions overall on Tuesday. (KAT, by the way, was most effective, with the Wolves allowing just 88 points per 100 possessions in his 41:13 minutes on the court.) Ant’s tenacity was significantly improved over his regular-season norm, in terms of both effort and awareness.

Suffice it to say, when Ant is shooting 3-17 and joining the rest of his teammates in lethargic ball movement and movement without the ball throughout the 17 minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, it makes sense that Minnesota was outscored 29-16 over that span.

It also makes sense that if that shoulder continues to trouble him, the likelihood rises that Friday night’s game to determine the final playoff spot in the Western Conference will be the Wolves final contest of the season.

‘Yoda’ Conley

When Mike Conley made his NBA debut in October 2007, Ant was 6 years old. On Tuesday night, Conley logged game number 1,099, counting playoffs and play-ins. It was the most important of the 24 contests he’s suited up for the Wolves and epitomized why his February acquisition was Tim Connelly’s best move thus far as president of basketball operations.

When Conley speaks in the locker room after games, it feels as if everyone should be wearing student robes and sitting cross-legged on the carpet. The dude is a sensei.

Indeed, it was altogether fitting that when the media congregated after the New Orleans game Sunday, Conley was humming along to the music of Ambrosia, a jazz-fusion meets soft-rock band from California that was popular in the late 1970s. Their first hit, released almost exactly 48 years ago, was entitled, “Holdin’ on to Yesterday.”

Article continues after advertisement

Conley holds on with the instincts and temperament of a sage. Last month after the Wolves became overly distracted by perceived bias from the referees, Dane Moore asked Conley about the fact that he has never gotten a technical foul in his 16 NBA seasons. Naturally he got a very sensible response. “We’ve got a young team with emotions. Everybody wants to win, they love the game and they just can’t all be me. They can’t all have zero techs and be cool as a cucumber.”

Conley is smart enough to perceive a team’s areas of greatest need and capably versatile enough to fill them. A pass-first point guard organizing the half-court offense of a very young Utah Jazz outfit during most of the 2022-23 season, he doled out nearly eight assists per game. Coming to the Wolves, he understood the ball would be in the hands of playmakers like Slo Mo (Anderson) and Ant far more frequently, and that he would be deployed more frequently as a way station for ball movement (a “hockey assist” guy) and an outlet scorer.

Twenty-four games later, his assists were cut from 7.7 to five per game and the quantity and (especially) the accuracy of his shots have risen. He is shooting 42% from three point range for the Wolves, with nearly all of them coming in the natural flow of the offense. In recent games, his ability to guard the other team’s most accurate long-range shooter has been notably effective, mostly because (as he described while Ambrosia crooned) of his ability to elide picks. It was perhaps the most important factor – albeit, for Conley, typically low-key – in the win over New Orleans Sunday, when he chased ace three-point shooter Trey Murphy III off the spaces beyond the three-point arc. Conley deflection of the ball in the final minutes of that game also enabled Ant to get the steal and finish off his spectacular troika of blocked shot, frontcourt steal, and lay-up plus the foul to decide the game.

On Sunday, while Ant faltered and KAT got hindered by foul trouble, Conley led the Wolves in scoring in the second half, splashing three of five three-point attempts to finish the game 6-for-8 from long distance, both team highs.

Conley’s accuracy on treys is what compelled Davis to rush out toward him in the final seconds of regulation and foul him as he was shooting from the corner. After the whistle blew, there was .1 second on the clock, the Wolves were down three points and Conley had three free throw attempts. Miss one and the game is over. There is no greater test in the NBA for keeping your composure for an extended period and executing a do-or-die maneuver over, and over, and over again.

After the game, Conley told Moore, “I thought, man, I’m glad it’s me and nobody else because I’d rather, if I make or miss them, I’d rather be the guy in control. Because I wouldn’t be able to handle it if I was watching somebody else shoot those three as a bystander.”

The first shot was almost too short; it stalled on the rim for an endless second and then crept over down the hoop as winced and strained his neck for body English.

“After that first one went in it calmed down a little bit,” Conley continued. “I took a couple of deep breaths and now I’m locked in on the next two.”

Locked and loaded with profound poise and self-confidence. The Wolves will need every bit of it to keep their season alive on Friday.