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A shellacking from the Suns but silver linings for the exhausted Timberwolves

Whether on the hunt or enjoying the spoils, the repeatable process that produced the Wolves’ seven-game winning streak unfolded with efficiency and justice.

Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Karl-Anthony Towns
Karl-Anthony Towns’ inspired play at both ends of late gives him more confidence and more bounce, a key element in the team’s ceiling and unity moving forward through a long season.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

The Minnesota Timberwolves have been so much fun to watch thus far this season that even a shellacking from the Phoenix Suns Wednesday night sported some unique silver linings.

For the full first two weeks of November, the Wolves had played with the common will and collective purpose of pack animals, surgically swarming opponents who dared to dribble, treating picks and screens as mere nuisances to negate, flexing the pecking order to accommodate the circumstance, and commingling business with pleasure in a manner that tapped from the head and heart in equal measure. Whether on the hunt or enjoying the spoils, the repeatable process that produced their seven-game winning streak unfolded with efficiency and justice.

Longtime Timberwolves fans are intimately acquainted with the mechanics of losing — they can sense incoming defeat like arthritic joints forecast the weather. But the 2023-24 edition of the Wolves have confounded these previously reliable premonitions, quelling the ineptitude with character, maturity and thrilling surges of talent. Twice in the first three contests of their current five-game road trip, they “won ugly,” refusing to panic or sustain dysfunction during the blatant reappearance of old vulnerabilities — bleeding points from turnovers, an inability to corral long rebounds, a martyr’s pique at the judgment of the referees and a premature judgment that the win was secured.

Coming off an undefeated four-game homestand, the opener of their road trip in San Antonio had all the markings of a classic letdown — the Wolves were stale early and late, coughing seven turnovers in the first quarter and allowing an 18-lead to dwindle to single digits before disposing of the inferior opponent. But it was the second of two games against the proud but fading dynasty of the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco that provided the most convincing evidence that these Wolves are done merely flirting with legitimacy and engaged in the glamourless scutwork required to have genuine hopes of someday putting rings on their fingers. 

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The game was chaos, the particulars already notorious. Warriors superstar Steph Curry was out with a knee injury; Jaden McDaniels and Klay Thompson stubbornly refused to relinquish each other’s jerseys, flinging bodies and shredding shirts at center court two minutes into a still-scoreless game. Draymond Green dragged Rudy Gobert down the court in an increasingly alarming chokehold. McDaniels, Thompson and Green were all ejected and Green later suspended for another five games. 

With their top three players out and the Bay Area crowd out for blood, the Warrior subs played rugged and carefree while the Wolves were earnest and clumsy. Minnesota had a huge edge in talent, but the Warriors felt the gust of an underdog’s destiny pushing them forward. They were up by a dozen midway through the third quarter and, tenaciously, by two, with less than 70 seconds left to play. 

That’s when the Wolves collectively put the little things and the big things together to nail down the win. When Anthony Edwards missed a fadeaway banker, Kyle Anderson snuck into the paint (while two Warriors were preoccupied with keeping Gobert off the boards), grabbed the offensive rebound and flung it out to Mike Conley as his momentum was sending him out of bounds. Conley swung it to KAT above the break of the three-point arc, and he didn’t hesitate to put the Wolves in the lead by splashing the trey. The score stayed that way for 30 seconds most notably after Gobert closed out to block a three-point shot — something he’s done more in this season’s first 10 games than last season’s 82. 

The dagger was a gleaming blade of selfless beauty. Ant had the ball in his new favorite territory, where midrange jumpers are hoisted. He was the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week because of the way he was bagging and tagging opponents in crunchtime with his offensive arsenal. So when he began threading his way through the thicket toward the hoop, Warrior defenders clustered around him. Just as they all converged, Ant dished to Conley, all alone in the corner. The pass was low but Conley used the bent knees for upward thrust and buried the three-pointer with nine seconds to play.

Including the highlights of Anderson’s offensive rebound, KAT’s trey, Gobert’s block, Ant’s dime and Conley’s game-winning splash, the Wolves checked off elements of a winning identity. Their defense inexorably tightened, ceding fewer Warriors points with each succeeding quarter, until Golden State committed as many turnovers as makes, six, in an 18-point final stanza. With Ant’s phenomenal hot streak cooling as KAT started finding his shooting rhythm, the pair made the right passes with each other in mind while sharing the court in crunchtime. The win gave them a season-opening record of 8-2. If you divide last season into ten-game chunks, their best stint a year ago was 6-4.

The silver lining on Wednesday night’s shellacking was its legitimacy. For once the hoary cliché, “they left it all out on the floor,” was true: Tuesday’s win was emotionally charged as well as physically taxing. Each triumph in the seven-game winning streak brought the Wolves more national attention and acclaim, and they are novices at the sacrifices required of chronic success. After getting the “rest advantage” in a handful of their early games, the tilt in Phoenix was their first back-to-back and came against a Suns squad that had underachieved on its “superteam” hype and was getting All Star Devin Booker back from injury. They were hungry and primed, and along with sterling performance by Booker and fellow superstar Kevin Durant, they received an unlikely boost from Josh Okogie, who hadn’t hit a trey in the month of November until he swished three in a row on Wednesday.

Bottom line, the Wolves simply ran out of juice. Their close-outs were weak — no physicality to overwhelm screens and no legs to scamper in rotation. Their three-pointers were frequently short — they converted just 5-for-27 from distance. They entered the game leading the NBA in defensive efficiency by more than three points, allowing 102.1 points per 100 possessions compared to the second-best team’s 105.8 points. Against Phoenix, they yielded 146.2 points per 100 possessions. 

The best excuse for an exhausted team? A seven-game winning streak. 

KAT’s inspired play

It is a relief to praise the recent play of KAT without a scroll of caveats and reservations. It is a tossup whether he or Conley have been the Wolves best player on this road trip thus far, but it is a certainty that he has begun to minimize the most troubling aspects of his play. 

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On defense, he is acquiring the court vision needed to play power forward, which is very different from the lens deployed by centers. Having Gobert get out more in rotation has helped this evolution by giving him more opportunities in his comfort zone filling in as low man in the paint. But KAT is also grasping that he has to be  the “point of the spear” more often both in parsing pick-and-rolls and closing out on the perimeter shooters. 

The fundamentals have more integrity. He is contesting layups with better verticality, recognizing and reacting with more comprehension and quickness and fulfilling his role in the chain with more diligence and understanding. He’s not chasing loose balls he won’t get, trying to block shots he won’t reach. Thus far on this road trip, Gobert has 10 blocks and 18 offensive rebounds in four games, compared to KAT’s one block and 5 offensive rebounds. But KAT has grabbed 39 defensive rebounds — Gobert is a distant second on the team with 23. 

Another welcome recent occurrence is that KAT has cut the “stray voltage” both in his play and his interactions with officials. The wicked-cool sling passes and over-the-head feeds have been toned down, and while he is still literally unselfish to a fault — three of his 10 turnovers on the road trip were unwise feeds to Gobert — he is making more simple, crisp, pinpoint passes. He gets rid of the ball more readily on double-teams and while I think he drives into traffic too frequently, I underestimate the points he gets out of it. Coach Chris Finch has been trying to get him to take the open three-pointer more often, and he is gradually coming around to it. Not surprisingly, practice makes progress — he is converting 38.5% of his treys on the road trip and his 10 makes are more than a quarter of the 38 the team has splashed. That brings his season accuracy up to a still-woeful 33.8% — given his eight-year history, that still leaves a lot of buckets to grow on. 

Last but not least, KAT was clearly the best Timberwolf on the floor during the blowout in Phoenix. At a time when Ant seems to be hitting a wall, KAT’s inspired play at both ends of late gives him more confidence and more bounce, a key element in the team’s ceiling and unity moving forward through a long season. 

Jaden McDaniels and the whistles

Among NBA players who have logged at least 200 minutes thus far this season, Jaden McDaniels fouls more frequently than anybody. 

McDaniels has always been foul-prone. In some respects, it comes with the territory of taking on the opponent’s best wing scorer, be they brutes or jitterbugs. It also is a vice entwined with the virtues of his game. It takes an uncommonly competitive personality to shine at trying to discourage the most gifted people in the world at putting the ball through the hoop.

Professional scorers have a deep bag of tricks that are psychological as much as physical. It was an accident that McDaniels broke his hand punching a wall where flapping tarp hid the cement behind it, but it advertised his temper like a shrill tea kettle. When Klay Thompson grabbed his shirt, and a bit of his face, to kick off the contretemps that got them both ejected this week, it was an egregious but not uncommon example of the ways he is goaded when his matchup is not in the spotlight. 

All that said, he has to reduce the whistles. The Wolves have invested more than $25 million annually over the next five seasons after this one because his role on the perimeter can be as valuable, and impactful, as what Gobert does for rim protection — but only if he can stay on the court and keep the Wolves as a team out of the penalty along the way (more than four team fouls in a quarter results in free throws for the opponent even if it is not a shooting foul). 

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I’ve written many times that McDaniels’ style is more tarantula than rhino — he creates less contact with his frame than most wing-stoppers, preferring to present the nightmare of whirring appendages that are poised to strike but waiting for the commitment to the shot or dribble. One reason he gets a lousy whistle from the refs is that his assignment will often collapse the distance other defenders don’t allow and then flail on contact — it is ironically easier to flop when you are the aggressor. 

But McDaniels also earns frequent whistles because he is ultra-competitive, he does have a temper, and he is loath to concede that sometimes he is beaten by the best in the game. If he can accelerate his learning process and continue to grow as a more multifaceted scorer himself on offense, that contract will be a bargain. But averaging 5.4 personal fouls per 36 minutes played is a blemish he and the team should seek to remove before it becomes more and more ingrained and mars the fabric of this team. 

Mailbag column coming next week

Over the weekend and all day Monday I’ll be taking questions from you for the season’s first mailbag column, meant to cover the long Thanksgiving weekend. That will be posted here next Wednesday.

If you have something you want me to address, please send it to my twitter (X) feed @brittrobson or send it to at my attention. 

Thanks for reading.