It may be oversimplifying things to call this a turning point. It's hard to carry any sort of momentum through a week-long break, which the Minnesota Timberwolves now head into. Several of their young talents will follow the Toronto Raptors back to Canada for the festivities of All-Star Weekend. However, even just by a simple little number, this was something new. Tonight's 117-112 win was the seventeenth win of the season, passing last season's total of sixteen and putting it to bed.
That's just scratching the surface, though. Karl-Anthony Towns is already a ridiculous basketball player, and he's twenty years old. Tonight was his finest outing to date, a career-best 35 points to go with 11 rebounds and 3 blocks. Towns was finally the focal point of the Wolves' offense, his 19 shot attempts leading the team and leading to 13 free throw attempts, a huge key to the Wolves' success. With the game within one possession late, he did this, which you just have to watch to believe.
HE IS NOT A NORMAL ROOKIE. CLUTCH BLOCK. https://t.co/uMRNlGZDQK— John Meyer (@thedailywolf) February 11, 2016
There was a brief discussion on the Wolves' broadcast near the end of the game that involved Towns' credentials for the All-Star Game, which is obviously a moot point by now, but sitting down to look at the numbers makes it very interesting indeed. Consider your selections right now for All-NBA center. Of the three slots available, Demarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond are easy picks for the first two. Towns is at the very least in the discussion for that third slot, right now. (hat tip to Peachtree Hoops' Brad Rowland for putting the thought in my head earlier this week)
Towns has moved into the top ten in the NBA in rebounding, one of only 11 players in the league to average over 10 rebounds per game, and one of only 9 to average a points-rebounds double-double. He's eighth in the NBA in blocks per game. He is absolutely ridiculous, and he is still a rookie.
As for the rest of the basketball game, Towns wasn't the only one to shine. Andrew Wiggins had yet another strong game with 26 points, and continues to show the desire to get the ball late in close games and take (and make) shots in vital situations. Wiggins is averaging right on those 26 points per game in the Wolves' last three wins. He too looked to the free throw line to create tonight, matching Towns' 13 attempts with 13 of his own. Wiggins' evolution is less eye-popping than Towns', but should not be underestimated.
The Timberwolves actually trailed significantly in the first half, down by as many as eighteen points. They were down by 13 at the half, and while they weren't really having trouble scoring, they also couldn't get stops and could never close the deficit. It looked like yet another night of the same old lack of defense dooming a decent effort on offense, a film which we've all seen too many times this year heading into the third quarter, which has been the Wolves' biggest problem area this year.
Instead, the third quarter brought a Wolves' run, a 13-3 stretch featuring an emphatic Towns dunk that brought the game's first tie since late in the first quarter. The expectation? The Wolves' bench will come in and give it all right back. Instead, from 3:46 in the third (which Wiggins was the first of he, Towns and Rubio to hit the bench) to 7:49 in the fourth (where Towns and Rubio made their usual re-entrance), the Wolves actually outscored the Raptors 15-11, giving the starters a three-point lead to take to the end of the game.
From there, here were the Wolves' final five scores before the game devolved into free-throw trading: Rubio 3 (!!), Wiggins jumper, Wiggins free throws, Towns jumper, Wiggins jumper. The Wolves' three best players created and made the shots that led them to this victory, with Towns' block above basically sealing the deal (a couple poor decisions from Gorgui Dieng notwithstanding). The completed comeback is their biggest of the season, and biggest since the very first game.
Speaking of Dieng, the last minute (where he fouled Kyle Lowry on a three-point attempt and had a trademark Dieng travel) should not take away from the work he put in tonight and the chemistry he continues to build playing next to Towns. The win over Chicago earlier this week provoked a few words about the partnership between Dieng and Towns that Kevin Garnett's extended absence has allowed (such as this excellent piece from Derek James at 1500 ESPN). Tonight provided another example of how this looks on the court.
Dieng, partially due to the Wolves' sparse roster for tonight, led the team in minutes with 41:01, and clocked in a double-double of his own with 14 points, 10 rebounds, and most notably 6 assists, only his fifth career game with six or more assists. He and Towns were working beautifully together for the entire game, setting each other up for numerous shots or free throw attempts. Dieng's evolution, particularly in combination with Towns, puts an interesting spin on the Wolves' future power forward question mark.
The Wolves aren't a new team yet. They still spectacularly lost the three-point battle (4-14 to the Raptors' 10-31), but compensated with a ridiculous 43-53 from the line through aggressive play, frequently keeping the Raptors' starters in foul trouble. The Wolves are third in the NBA in free throw attempts per game (27.1) and first in makes (21.5), but this was well past normal. The 53 attempts are the third most in a single game in the NBA this year, and the 43 made free throws are an NBA season high and the most since the Wolves themselves in March 2014.
This is the kind of game that gives hope and gives a vision of what this team can be. The Raptors are a very good basketball team who had been ridiculously hot, winning fourteen of fifteen games going into tonight. Through everything, the Wolves are now 5-0 against the Hawks, Raptors and Bulls this season. The final two months of this season provide a great opportunity for the Wolves to show a few more teams just how much potential they have.