As the NBA hiatus continues, the Fox Sports North Network has been re-airing some of the best wins the Minnesota Timberwolves have racked up this season. First, it was the unfathomable blowout of the Los Angeles Clippers, with president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas live-tweeting the whole thing. Then, the especially satisfying win over the Miami Heat. You may remember it as the game Jimmy Butler threw away.
However, they are only showing wins, which means the loss to the Toronto Raptors will fall through the cracks. That game was especially important, though, because it was the first and only time we were able to witness Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell on the floor together. With Towns’ injury and now the devastation caused by COVID-19, it’s unclear when we will get to see the much-anticipated duo don the Wolves colors again. So, it’s only right to dig way too deep into that lone game.
The night ended poorly for Minnesota. They struggled to contain any part of Toronto’s offense and just couldn’t manage to pump out enough offensive firepower of their own to match the reigning champions. When the final buzzer sounded, the score was 137-126. Towns finished with 23 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists, while Russell had 22 points and 5 assists in his Timberwolves debut.
There has been plenty made of what the KAT/D-Lo pairing could taste like, but this game poured a tiny droplet of that onto our waiting tongues. Some of it was good, other parts were bad, but it’s a sample nonetheless.
Almost immediately, you can see how ability to score and create in multiple ways opens up Minnesota’s offense and muddle a defense.
It starts with a simple strong-side pick-and-pop, which will be the way the pair butter their bread when they finally get to play meaningful minutes together. On this occasion, the side of the court they are on is flooded with Wolves jerseys.
Russell comes off the Towns pick with his defender (Fred VanVleet) on his hip, forcing Towns’ man (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) to step in and prevent Russell from an easy lane to the hoop. Like any good point guard playing with a flamethrowing big, Russell quickly kicks it to the spotted-up Towns, this starts the defensive scramble. Malik Beasley’s man (OG Anunoby) switches off to prevent Towns from draining an open triple, meaning Pascal Siakam, who was guarding Juancho Hernangomez in the corner, has to help the helper and keep tabs on Beasley — who is also a sniper from deep.
Admittedly, the staunch Raptors defense does a fairly good job initially. But, with a quick pump fake and dribble, Towns is able to draw Siakam’s attention and force him to watch the ball instead of his original man (Hernangomez). A swift and smart backdoor cut and pinpoint dime later, Juancho has the ball under the hoop with no rim protection to deter him. Unfortunately, he botches the bunny, but that’s a rare occurrence and would be a beautifully executed bucket 99 percent of the time.
The main thing many predicted would be the problem with Minnesota’s new core leaders is their inability to defend competently. That was on show a few minutes later.
Russell is far too lax while chasing VanVleet around the hand-off pick set by Hollis-Jefferson, allowing VanVleet to get a step on him and force Towns into a bind. The big man is left trying to play between both Raptors and stop them both at once. In the end, he is caught without a map in no man’s land, allowing a easy pocket pass to a diving RHJ.
Just over three minutes later, the next flash of offensive brilliance. Again, it ends in a miss, but it’s more great action. Instead of a screen, this one originates from a Towns post-up. Unlike some former Timberwolves point guards *cough* Jeff Teague *cough*, Russell bounces the perfect entry pass into his big man. From there, ball and player movement unfurl delightfully.
Russell bursts around Towns after the entry pass, catching a gorgeous over-the-head pass from his big fella. With D-Lo now heading downhill directly toward the cup, the defense once again feels compelled to collapse in on him. That leaves Allen Crabbe wide open, available to catch a sweet flick from Russell at the top of the arc and able to launch a triple that he really should be connecting on.
After an extended period on the pine together, the dynamic duo was back at it offensively midway through the second period. Again, it’s their gravity and ability to make defenders forget about their primary responsibility.
Look how every eye in the Toronto lineup drifts onto the pair after Russell feeds the ball to Towns at the free throw line. Much like Hernangomez at the start of the game, this allows Josh Okogie to sneak in behind his man and benefit from another pinpoint Towns dish.
Despite Minnesota giving up 74 points in the first half, Towns and Russell were actually quite solid defensively through 24. And on the offensive end, their newfound connection continued to blossom.
Despite missing the first attempt, Towns’ eventual 3-point make stems from a left-handed, no-look bullet pass slung at him from Russell. Along with a signature back-tap from Josh Okogie.
Early in the third quarter, those defensive blues came back around to haunt them. This time, it’s in the pick-and-roll, with Josh Okogie complicit as well. Russell switches lazily on to Kyle Lowry, providing little to no pressure on the ball-handler and allowing the six-time All-Star to comfortably thread a pass to Anunoby. Okogie is also lost on the switch and Towns takes care of the rest with some matador interior defense.
A few moments later, the pair are again defensively unsatisfying. This time, it’s in transition where they give up an open runway to the basket. Russell, who is tasked with stopping the ball, is far too upright and unable to put any dent in Kyle Lowry’s motion. This forces Towns to help, but his effort is just as poor. Now, Hernangomez is called into action, but that leaves his man (Anunoby) with all alone to collect the easy drop-off and score an even easier basket.
This time, however, Minnesota pays them back. For the umpteenth time, it’s D’Angelo Russell’s gravitational pull that confuses and disables Toronto’s elite defense. Too busy worrying about Russell, Siakam and VanVleet bungle the switch and forget about a streaking Malik Beasley. Again, Towns finds him with precision and picks up his fifth assist for the game.
In the fourth quarter, things fell apart for Minnesota. The offense that had been so devastating struggled to keep the ball rolling and defensively Toronto’s adjustments were too much to handle.
The biggest adjustment getting the ball into All-Star Pascal Siakam’s hands and headhunting D’Angelo Russell. The 24-year-old has trouble guarding players in his weight class, so the 6-foot-9, 230 lb Siakam was always going to be a problem. Even more so when he can’t rely on Towns to consistently cover his tail.
Here, Siakam bullies Russell all the way from behind the arc to the low block and Towns, who is far too interested in Hollis-Jefferson on the other block, is nowhere to be seen. There is no chance the ball was leaving Siakam’s hands in that situation and Towns has to be able to read that and provide any sort of help defense.
However, as was the trend in this game and undoubtedly many more going forward, Minnesota still had some fun stuff up their sleeve offensively. This play, they invert their usual Russell/Towns pick-and-roll and let all 7-feet of Towns do the ball-handling. Like a true guard, he comes off the screen and uses his deadly 3-point shot to scare Siakam, baiting him into a shooting foul and giving the big man three attempts at the charity stripe. Funky, but effective.
After that, the game was effectively killed. Raps win.
Overall, it was pretty much what one would expect from the D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns pairing, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. It is obvious they had not played a ton of professional basketball with each other — on both ends of the floor. They had some moments of brilliance on offense, but they can certainly raise a few notches higher when they do start to fully click. Defensively, they weren’t absolutely horrendous, but miscommunication and lack of effort was still clear far too often.
Let’s hope it’s not too long before we get more Russell/Towns games to analyze.