Wednesday, May 25, 2022

How the Timberwolves went from lottery team to Western Conference playoff contender

After beating the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks in early March, Karl-Anthony Towns spoke emphatically about the confidence that the Minnesota Timberwolves are playing with lately. 

“Any time we step on the court, we should win,” said Towns, who finished that game with 25 points and 11 rebounds. “Simple as that. There’s no excuse. We don’t feel that we should lose to anybody. We feel we can beat anybody. So, every time we walk into the arena, we feel we should win.”

Winning appears to be coming easier to the Timberwolves this season, especially recently. Their 12-6 record since the All-Star break ranks sixth in the league, and their plus-7.5 net rating is fourth best during that span.  

They’ve rattled off wins against the Grizzlies, Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat, and have climbed the rankings (currently seventh) in the West to the point where there’s still a possibility of them avoiding the play-in tournament altogether. 

The Timberwolves being in this position didn’t seem like a possibility back in October, especially after finishing the 2020-21 season with a 23-49 record. But with their most recent win — a 116-95 drubbing of the Mavericks — they’ve officially doubled their win total from a year ago, and regardless of what their record is at the end of the season, they’ll finish above .500 for just the third time in the last 17 years. 

Yet if you’ve watched the Wolves play recently, it’s not entirely surprising to see how this team has crashed the party of playoff hopefuls in the West.

It starts with the play of Towns, who earned his third All-Star selection this season after a year where he missed 22 games due to a dislocated wrist. After two injury-riddled seasons, the former No. 1 overall pick returned to being the efficient, dominant player we’ve grown accustomed to seeing early in his career.

But the difference between Towns this season and years prior is the types of shots he’s taking. 

For a majority of Towns’ career, the Wolves’ philosophy has primarily been get KAT the ball on the block and let him go to work. But this season we’re seeing a different Towns on offense. Nearly 20 percent of the shots Towns is getting are from spot-up situations, the most of any other play type this season. The idea is still get KAT the ball and let him go to work, but instead of feeding him in the post, he’s out on the perimeter where he can be more versatile as a scorer. 

Now we’re seeing Towns take guys off the dribble more, and because bigger defenders can’t stay with him when he drives to the hoop, he’s doing stuff like this:

You put a smaller defender on Towns and his size and strength will likely knock them off balance:

And you can’t sag off him on the perimeter, because he’s been a lethal 3-point shooter his entire career. There’s a reason he’s the reigning 3-point contest champion, and this season he’s knocking them down at a 40 percent clip:

Towns is the main reason why the Wolves have been so successful this season, but he’s not the only one. D’Angelo Russell is averaging a career-high seven assists a game to go along with 18 points a night in the healthiest season he’s had since he was selected an All-Star playing for the Brooklyn Nets in 2019. Then there’s Anthony Edwards, who has taken another leap in his development to become a reliable second scoring option alongside Towns. 

Edwards’ efficiency has been the biggest improvement, going from a 32.9 percent 3-point shooter in his rookie year, to now knocking down 36 percent of his 3s on over eight attempts a night. That alone is a significant improvement for the 20-year-old guard, but he’s seen positive development in other areas of his game, too.

Edwards has become a better facilitator, and he’s making smart reads when he’s driving to the rim. And because he’s such a scoring threat with the ball in his hands, the defense naturally gravitates toward him, which then simplifies the passes he needs to make to a teammate who may be open on the perimeter. Like this:

Edwards has become a consistent 20-point scorer this season, he’s taken a leap as a passer and he’s become more committed to being a two-way player. He’s become so confident in his defense that he’s even asking to guard the opposing team’s best player on occasions, relishing in the challenge to be locked in on that end of the floor. Edwards has asked to guard players like LaMelo Ball, CJ McCollum and DeMar DeRozan, though Minnesota head coach Chris Finch opted to throw Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels at DeRozan in their lone matchup so far against the Bulls this season. 

After the Timberwolves beat the Memphis Grizzlies in late February, in which Edwards was the second-most used defender against Ja Morant, he told the media that going forward he wants to guard Morant full time. 

“If we play Memphis anymore this year, I’m gonna tell him let me guard Ja,” Edwards told reporters after helping hold Morant to 7 of 25 from the field. “Ja’s my brother, but I love the matchup. I love to go against him.” 

You could see the intensity Edwards was playing with when he guarded Morant. On one possession he single-handily stopped Morant on a fastbreak, something that’s not easy to do and often results in a highlight-level dunk from the explosive young guard.  

On another possession Edwards acts like Morant’s shadow, mirroring every step to limit the amount of necessary space needed to create off the dribble or even get a quality shot off: 

The cherry on top of what was a superb defensive effort for Edwards that night came in the closing seconds of the game, when Morant had two separate opportunities to tie the game up and potentially send it to overtime. On the first attempt, Edwards poked the ball away from Morant that resulted in an empty possession for Memphis. On the second, he stayed glued to Morant and impacted his shot enough to force an airball in the closing seconds. 

It’s the type of defensive intensity Edwards spoke into existence back in October after a win over the Bucks in which Minnesota’s defense thrived.

“Man, we lock up, man. I don’t care what nobody say about us. We play the best defense in the league. I stamp that. We gonna have two, three people on the All-Defensive Teams, know what I’m saying. And I might be on one of them,” Edwards joked after the win. “We definitely been winning games on the defensive end, man.” 

That was back in October, and though the Wolves may not have anyone make the All-Defensive team, Edwards hasn’t been entirely wrong in lauding Minnesota’s improved effort on that end of the floor. That’s where Finch deserves a ton of credit. In his first full season coaching this team, he’s elevated them from third-worst defense in the league a season ago to ranking 11th this year, and eighth since the All-Star break.

“Finch has been fantastic, he’s been amazing,” Towns said after a game back in February. “He’s just such a bright mind when it comes to basketball. … And that says a lot about Finch, the way I feel about Finch and how highly I think of him, because the guy before him was a man I would die for in Ryan [Saunders].” 

That’s a big vote of confidence from Towns, and for good reason. Finch’s defensive schemes, in which KAT is playing less drop coverage in pick-and-rolls, and is more active at the point of attack, has certainly helped Minnesota not get burned as much by guards looking to exploit Towns’ average rim protection. This new game plan on defense also plays on the strengths of guys like Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels, who have become staunch perimeter defenders with their length and quickness to stay in front of guards. 

This complete overhaul of Minnesota’s defense, which also includes closing out better on the perimeter, has taken this team from perpetual lottery franchise to a team that’s going to be a tough opponent in the playoffs. Throw in the addition of defensive pest Patrick Beverley, who has helped promote playing grittier and edgier on defense, and you have a Minnesota team whose play is starting to live up to the roster it employs.

Even outside of the starting lineup, the Timberwolves’ second unit is among the best in the league, ranking eighth in the league in points per game (38.1). That’s credit to guys like Malik Beasley, Taurean Prince, Naz Reid and Jaylen Nowell who have trust in Finch’s system, so even when the starters go to the bench, Minnesota’s still going to be aggressive on defense and push the tempo on offense. 

The Wolves’ spot in the postseason isn’t secured yet, and a trip to the play-in tournament is a possibility if they finish below sixth in the Western Conference. Currently they sit 2.5 games behind the Utah Jazz for the sixth spot, with a crucial game against the Denver Nuggets looming on Friday. But Minnesota has a 92 percent chance of making the playoffs per FiveThirtyEight, and regardless of how they get to the postseason, once they’re there the Timberwolves won’t be a typical seventh or eighth seed that can just be walked all over.  

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