MINNEAPOLIS — The Timberwolves have found themselves in a bit of a conundrum a third of the way through this season. Coming into last night’s game, they were the number four seed in the Western Conference, a conference so heralded and feared before the year began that some discussed a possible 50-win team missing the playoffs (Note: That’s not going to happen).
It was supposed to be a blood bath in the West, and the pack finds themselves in the top half of the playoff picture, a place the team hasn’t been in 13 seasons. And yet, there is a particular sentiment brewing in Wolves fandom (our supreme Editor-in-chief put it so eloquently a week ago) that this team is not fun to watch.
I won’t get into it too much, this is a recap for Bazz’s sake, so please read John’s piece. But I’ve got great news: the game sure seemed fun last night! The Wolves blew out the Kings, 119-96. Karl-Anthony Towns led the team with arguably his best game of the year.
You can probably thank Joel Embiid for that. After a tough overtime loss to Philly on Tuesday, Embiid and KAT went at it a bit on Instagram. The two are friends, Karl assured the media before and after the game, but this is what he had to say when asked if he had extra motivation for this one:
“Yeah, I did. I didn’t come to play basketball, I came to be an assassin.”
Uhh, OK, wow.
Fortunately, assassins must be really good at basketball, because KAT had a monster game. He scored 30 points, grabbed 14 boards, with five assists and five blocks to complete a nice 4x5.
It’s actually refreshing to see Karl, or any athlete for that matter, say he had a little extra for this one. He usually gives out the cliché about always coming out for a win, always having to be ready, and giving 110%. Having said that, he did try to downplay the feud later, but let’s be real. Teams and players alike have their bulletin board material. Tro-el Embiid, if you’re reading this, I’ve sent you a gift basket as appreciation for that one.
It certainly didn’t help the King’s case when Dave Joerger assigned Skal “Yes, Another Kentucky Wildcat Big Man” Labissiere to defend Karl to start the game. The mismatch was immediately exploited, as Towns aggressively attacked the paint a few times before stepping out and hitting a three. In the post, the smaller Skal could not stop him, which meant Skal wouldn’t make it back to the game until the fourth quarter.
Willie Cauley-Stein entered the game to try to rectify the situation and it’s odd he didn’t get the start in the first place. He has more experience and size than Labissiere. WCS and KAT actually played together at UK so he may have a better idea of tendencies. The matchup makes more sense, but that didn’t stop KAT from having his way with him too.
What stood out more than his scoring was his defense and playmaking. It’s not just that he racked up five blocks and a steal, he was stifling his opponents in the post. He clearly had an extra edge tonight after being kept restless after the OT loss to the 76ers. It also helped that Zach Randolph was defended by Taj Gibson and Gorgui Dieng, allowing him to focus on the other bigs who are less talented on offense.
He was dishing out of double teams, which always seem to come but are exacerbated when he was efficient as he was scoring early on.
“I thought Karl got going early but I also thought he made the right play. Maybe the best play of the game was when he posted up, the help came and he kicked it out and we got the three. It was just a really good basketball play,” Thibs said after the game.
That was in the second quarter. He dished it to Andrew Wiggins in the corner for an open three, my favorite kind of three, but the play from KAT goes deeper than that. He attracted the double team but before flipping it to Wiggins, he faked it to Jimmy Butler to shift the defense even more.
It truly was a really good basketball play.
Last night’s game was what fans, media and Thibs are all calling on Towns to do every night. Give a full effort on both ends of the floor and to make the right play. Maybe they don’t expect that robust of a stat line, considering that only one other Timberwolf has had at least 30 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, and five blocks in a game
That man’s name? Yep, Robbie Hummel.
Kevin Garnett, yeah, that’s the guy. He did it three times in his career in Minnesota. It will be really hard to reach Garnett’s defensive legacy, especially with the path he is on right now, but KAT has all the physical tools to get there. The question is whether or not the awareness and effort will come together on that end in a consistent manner.
In other big news, Marcus Georges-Hunt started the second quarter! He played seventeen total minutes! He is now everyone’s favorite player!
In all seriousness, MGH played pretty well. He’s one of those lucky NBA players (at least for now) that when they go in, people say, “He didn’t stand out, but that’s a good thing.”
He did what he was supposed to do on defense with no major mistakes. He literally didn’t touch the ball on offense during his first stint, but when Gibson came out with his third foul late in the second quarter, he was sent back out. Butler proceeded to find him wide open on the next possession and he nailed a three for his first touch on offense.
That may have been one of the loudest cheers of the night as the Kings had just cut the deficit to six before he made that. I also think the fans have been itching to see this bench play more and the only time we’ve seen MGH is in garbage time of blowouts.
One hopes that positive reinforcement from his play will influence Thibodeau to play the bench significant minutes more than whiny writers like me in my Wizards recap or the folks over at the Ringer who seem to have a Wolves obsession lately. MINUTES! OH MY GOD, THE MINUTES!
It’s a valid concern, but the debate is getting to be a little too harsh on coach Thibs. If Nemanja Bjelica can return soon enough, not sure when that will happen, and MGH can sustain his “doesn’t stand out, but seriously, that’s good” play, then maybe for Christmas we can just ask for like, two to three more minutes a game for each bench player? What do you say Coach?
Alright, I need to wrap this up. Jimmy Butler played amazing but you wouldn’t know it until now since I just started writing about it. He had 21 points, nine assists, seven boards, two steals and two blocks. Whenever the team starts faltering, Jimmy seems to know what to do. It’s almost absurd what he can do for this team. He is the leader they needed, the true alpha who has been through much more than the Wolves two young #1 overall picks.
At one point in the second quarter, after one of the team’s patented ugly possessions where nothing happens until three seconds remains on the shot clock, Taj Gibson heaved one from the elbow after a loose-ball scuffle. It missed left, right into the hands of Butler who slammed it down for the unintentional alley-oop. He’s just always in the right spot.
If KAT’s dish to Wiggins earlier was ‘just a great basketball play’, this was just a Jimmy Butler play.
This game was really fun, and it was over after an 11-0 run during the middle of the third quarter by the Wolves. They ended up taking a 24-point lead into the fourth quarter, and they did not collapse. Butler played the most minutes at 36, Towns with 35, Wiggins with 34 and Teague with 30. Taj only played 24 minutes due to foul trouble.
One thing to monitor with Gibson, he appeared to be shaking his right hand in pain at times during the game, but I am not sure when that started. He was icing it afterwards but it’s unclear how serious it is, if at all.
Dieng played great tonight as well in 24 minutes of play. He filled in when Taj got in foul trouble and played well against Randolph. He only had four points but he grabbed eight rebounds and had four steals on his way to a +22 night.
The Wolves take on the Suns this Saturday at home.
I leave you with the super fun Jimmy Butler post-game interview thread: