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A Closer Look at Karl-Anthony Towns’ Unique Crunch-Time Performance against the Warriors

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Four clutch buckets from Sunday’s win that summarize Towns’ offensive brilliance.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

When Jimmy Butler exited a Friday night game against the Houston Rockets with an apparent non-contact knee injury, Wolves fans gasped for air as the thought of another year without playoff basketball sent an anxious group into a deserved tailspin. But there are two All-Stars on this team, and Karl-Anthony Towns carried the load on Sunday night when it mattered most.

The Wolves hosted the reigning NBA Champion Golden State Warriors in front of a sell-out crowd. While some bought tickets to root for the high-octane, Bay Area bunch, the masses left Target Center with Towns’ dazzling play in front of their minds. The third-year center finished with 31 points on 13-24 shooting (2-5 from three), 16 rebounds (five offensive) and two assists. Towns played the final 11:02 of the fourth quarter after checking in with his team clinging to a two point lead. He put up 14 of the Wolves’ final 21 points en route to a 109-103 victory, shooting 6-10 from the floor in the fourth quarter against one of the league’s elite defenses.

Down the stretch, the young big-man demonstrated an unparalleled ability to score from every level of the floor. On the season, Towns trails only Warriors point guard Steph Curry, who happened to be sidelined with an ankle injury, as the NBA’s most efficient high-volume scorer. These four crunch-time plays illustrate why:

With less than six minutes remaining and the Wolves up by four, Jeff Teague runs the ball up the court. As Nemanja Bjelica and Jamal Crawford flare to the perimeter while Taj Gibson looks for position in the post, Towns trails the play. This is a common design for the Wolves: Teague waits as Towns approaches from behind, then hits him in stride and watches him use superior speed and athleticism to get to the rim. But on this play, Teague’s pass is behind Towns, who has to stop his forward momentum to control the ball. It hits his hand immediately inside of the three-point arc, but instead of settling for a long-two, Towns identifies the three points line, steps back and rattles it home. Not only is he shooting a gaudy 41.4% from beyond the arc this season, he’s in an elite group of big-men who possess all of the tools necessary to reliably hit a step-back three, especially with a game on the line.

And while he may be the NBA’s best shooting center, he’s even better with his back to the basket. Among 21 NBA players that average three post-up shot attempts per game—a list that includes most of the league’s best front court players—Towns ranks first in points per possession (PPP). Behind his 1.04 PPP, Kevin Love sits at second with 1.01, while Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge and Joel Embiid each score just under one point per possession.

With under four minutes remaining and the game back to within three, Jeff Teague creates a passing lane to find Towns in the post. Once Towns gets the ball, he immediately backs into good position. He’s being hounded by last season’s Defensive Player of the Year, Draymond Green, who remains one of the league’s most ferocious stoppers. But no one can slow Towns once he gets to his spot; it takes him just five dribbles, one pivot and a towering right-handed hook shot to leave Green begging for an offensive foul.

Gibson, one of the few players who bests Towns in post-up PPP (on significantly fewer attempts), knows intimately how difficult it is to score on Green. Gibson stands behind Kevin Durant as Towns goes to work, and no one is more excited to see him finish the play. Mr. Clean pumps his fist and gives Towns a spank of approval.

At the other end, Durant hit two free-throws to make it a one possession game, giving the ball back to the Wolves with 2:30 on the clock.

On the very next play, Teague dribbles at the top of the key before driving past Quinn Cook and into the lane. His battle-tested ability to finish at the rim forces Green away from Towns and into the paint to help. Teague then dishes the ball to Towns in the corner, and Green—presumably thinking about the three that Towns hit just minutes before—recovers hard to contest. Towns’ pump-fake sends Green flying into the air, giving him room to drive toward the paint. But before he gets there, he elevates off of his right foot and kisses a floater through the net.

Teague, an average-sized point guard, is the kind of player that would tend to rely on this type of shot. It’s hardly fair that a guy who averages over 12 rebounds per game would also possess a similar level of touch.

One minute later, after Durant hit a contested-three from the top of the key, the Wolves took possession with the game on the line and a lively Target Center crowd on their feet.

On what was his most inspiring basket of the night, Teague finds Towns on the left block and watches his teammate go to work. Green does a good job to stand his ground and force a difficult shot, but Towns takes two dribbles, spins around his right side and hits a fade-away jumper. Nothing but net, and an anxious crowd erupted as the wounded Wolves appeared set to steal a game no one expected them to win.

Towns would end up scoring one more bucket, a put-back after another offensive rebound, to ice the game and clinch a victory. He indulged the home-town crowd with his arms outstretched as they stood to applaud his heroics. After all, he may be the NBA’s only player capable of hitting a step-back three, a post-hook, an off the dribble floater and a turn-around, fade-away jumper over a five minute stretch; notwithstanding the nature of the game, the time on the clock or the player guarding him.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Wolves have struggled to make Towns the focal point of their late-game offense for much of the season. Teague’s inconsistency in creating effective entry-passes, Towns’ periodic inability to demand positioning and Tom Thibodeau’s unflinching game-plan has led to hurried offense in the face of dwindling shot clocks. But on Sunday afternoon, the duo worked in perfect unison and the Wolves came away with their most important victory of the season. The variety of ways that Towns scored the ball down the stretch serves as a perfect encapsulation of the seven-footer’s unmatched offensive brilliance.