From the day Karl-Anthony Towns first arrived in Minnesota as a fresh-faced 20-year-old, the two-time All-Star has been an NBA iron man. 303 straight appearances to begin his career speaks for itself.
That incredible streak, unfortunately, came to an abrupt end after a car accident placed him in the NBA’s concussion protocol, forcing him to miss the Timberwolves’ last two games against the New York Knicks and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Without their franchise star, nobody would have been surprised if the team flopped against a struggling Knicks squad, or got absolutely destroyed against a lethal Bucks team that currently holds the best record in the league. Towns is vital to what the Wolves do on both ends of the floor.
In his absence, an unexpected hero came along. A man who has often been neglected and misused this season. A man named Anthony Tolliver. With his two biggest nights of the season, the 33-year-old helped the Wolves win in New York and hang around with Milwaukee until the last few minutes of the fourth.
In the 50 games prior to the last two, Tolliver had only broken the 20-minute mark in six games. His lack of minutes came from a combination of Dario Saric’s arrival via trade, and Tom Thibodeau’s complete unwillingness to use more than nine players in his rotation. What Tolly has done over the last two games is the perfect example of why he can and should be hitting that mark regularly.
In the Wolves’ first and only appearance in Madison Square Garden, Tolliver dropped a season-high 16 points (5-9 FG, 4-5 3PT) and three rebounds. He rewrote that season-best point total with 17 points (6-8 FG, 5-7 3PT) in Milwaukee, while adding five rebounds and one earth-shaking block on MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Without Towns out there to eat up post touches and operate in the pick-and-roll, Ryan Saunders needed a new way to derive offense. Enter Tolliver’s long-range proficiency. He is a master at staying shot-ready and firing with a high and quick release, and he devastated a woeful Knicks defense all night with those qualities.
He was a shot-making machine in the pick-and-pop. Whether he connects or slips the screen, he quickly bounces out to the 3-point line, sets his feet, and launches. His first nine points in NY came from this action, which provided a huge boost for the Wolves as New York dangerously hung around on the scoreboard.
As Fox Sports North broadcast analyst Jim Petersen noted on air, Knicks rookie Mitchell Robinson is a high-caliber shot-blocker, which leads him to drop into the paint to try and thwart ball-handlers in screen actions. With Robinson back peddling to begin the play, it gave Tolliver ample time to get off his shot. That’s all AT needed to make his man pay consistently.
He isn’t just a pick-and-pop master though, Tolliver can frustrate opponents in any kind of spot-up play. So far this season, the former Piston is nailing 38 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys.
When the Knicks defense started to zero in on the pick-and-pops that hurt them earlier, Tolliver snuck from the left corner to the left slot and buried his fourth long-range bucket of the night. Derrick Rose was telegraphing his pass to Luol Deng in the post, so the Knickerbockers defense forgot about Tolliver for a split second. Just like his previous attempts, he made them regret it.
The 6-foot-8 forward specializes in shooting but he has also shown that he can provide above-average defense, too. Just 30 seconds after the aforementioned triple, he got a bucket-saving fingertip on an Emmanuel Mudiay dunk attempt, after Tyus Jones and Keita Bates-Diop got muddled up on the perimeter.
Watch the entire 3-and-D sequence here:
His block on Antetokounmpo was the one that filled the highlight reels, but stopping a bouncy Mudiay at full speed was another crazy impressive play. Without Towns’ size and length affecting would-be scorers, it was a godsend to have Tolliver out there protecting the rim.
To cap off an awesome night in the Big Apple, he pulled his offensive game off the 3-point line and took it to under the rim. After slipping out of an off-ball pick for Tyus Jones, Tolliver sent rookie Kevin Knox the wrong way on a pump-fake, squirmed around a confused Noah Vonleh, and finished the layup with a nifty reverse up-and-under move.
Against an 11-win team like New York, most NBA players are capable of getting hot and having a big night. It’s a lot harder to do so against the hottest team in the league, but Tolliver was up for the challenge.
Once again, he made his living from behind the arc. Giving the best defensive team in the NBA a steady dose of pick-and-pop and spot-up buckets. He started in the left slot with a wide open triple after a defensive breakdown. Two minutes later he was sliding out of a screen and nailing one in Nikola Mirotic’s grill.
Just to make sure we didn’t think his driving bucket from last game was a fluke, he pulled off another impressive finish at the rack to continue his torrid first quarter start.
Thanks to his hot shooting, Tolliver got Ersan Ilyasova to over-commit on the perimeter and took it hard at the Greek Freak — finishing over him with a deft touch.
It seemed like he couldn’t get any hotter, then he burst into flames. First he connected on a trademark pick-and-pop splash at the top of the key, the very next play he provided the fans with one of the best blocks you are likely to see this season. A block that topped Sportscenter’s Top 10 plays of the night and propelled the Timberwolves momentum for the rest of the half.
When he was asked by Journal Sentinel’s Matt Valazquez after the game about Tolliver’s denial, Antetokounmpo was quick to heap praise on Tolliver’s effort, before issuing a warning.
“No, I didn’t expect that, but he’s a solid defender, a really good defender. I looked at the tape and was like, ‘Maybe I did not get as high as I thought’, but i got high and he was able to block that shot. That was a great play by him ... I hope next year he’s not underneath the basket because I’m going to make sure next time I get it done,” he said.
When Tolliver was asked by Zone Coverage’s Dane Moore about the block, he sounded like he was relieved not to get put on another poster.
“He’s dunked on me plenty of times in his career. Finally I was able to get one back on him. I basically just said, ‘hey, if he spins baseline, I’m going and jumping.’ If you don’t have that thought process, it’s going to be too late,” said Tolliver.
It was probably one of the best plays of Tolliver’s 10-year career, but it wasn’t the last thing he did for the night. He tied up the score a few minutes later with his fourth triple of the first half and added his fifth on another game-tying long-range bucket with six minutes remaining in the game.
Considering how well he was playing, Tolliver probably wasn’t used down the stretch as much as fans might have wanted. Even so, it was an excellent night from the veteran and another example of Ryan Saunders getting the most out of a roster that’s been plagued by injuries.