It’s clear Minnesota Timberwolves have room to grow, as this reactionary, roller-coaster start to the season, has proven. After a disastrous loss to the Clippers in Los Angeles, the Timberwolves (and their fans, who wildly overreacted) needed a reset, and it has come in the form of a 6-2 sprint led by its leaders.
The two cornerstones upon which this team was built are starting to display why their skillsets are conducive to an atmosphere in which their supporting cast have found a rhythm. Russell is capable of creating an in-rhythm offense with the ball in his hands, while Towns’ mere presence without the ball can unlock everyone around him.
D’Angelo Russell is Locked and Fully Loaded
D’Angelo Russell came to Minnesota to carry out Gersson Rosas’s vision that Russell, a one-time All-Star, would be the best point guard the franchise has ever seen. It was seen at the time as a bold forecast; but, then again, if you were to flip through the archives in the Wolves’ mediocre point guard repository, you wouldn’t have to think that imaginatively to see a world in which Russell rises to the top.
After a season cut short by COVID-19 and a second one mostly mired by injury and sickness, Timberwolves fans had started to turn on the versatile young guard, scapegoating him for the team’s woes on both ends, whether that was fair or not. Russell came into this season knowing his tenure in the City of Lakes had, thus far, failed to meet not only hopes, but also expectations.
“Anytime it’s a contract year in the professional world, the pressure is on you,” the now-healthy, 25-year-old Russell said during media day, in reference to his extension eligibility following the 2021-22 campaign.
They say that pressure makes diamonds, and it has crafted a potentially franchise-altering one in this season’s rendering of Russell, whose loading time has been worth the wait for the Timberwolves and subset of their fans who never wavered in their collective belief in him.
Russell is impacting the Timberwolves — on both ends of the floor — better than he ever has, and the numbers bear that out.
The Wolves are 10-8 when he plays and lost both games he was out with injury. Furthermore, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 Draft holds an on-off of +23.5 per 100 possessions; the Timberwolves score 5.2 more points (72nd percentile) and allow 18.3 fewer points (99th percentile) per 100 possessions with Russell on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass.
A key part of Russell’s influence this season, however, was found last season. In a move that surprised many in Wolves land, Minnesota head coach Chris Finch brought Russell off the bench to catalyze the second unit’s offense and close halves with the usual starters after he returned from injury in April. Although Russell eventually returned to the starting lineup later in April, Finch began to make him the first substitution of the game to carry out the same role, a practice that has continued this season and paid major dividends.
icy conditions in Philly ❄️ pic.twitter.com/fnhFJ9Q15b— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 28, 2021
The Wolves second unit has been so successful with Russell behind the wheel because he has full leeway to pick his spots based on what he sees on the floor.
If a defense is in drop, he’ll get into the mid-range looking to score first and facilitate accordingly if the defense collapses on him. If he gets a switch, it’s go-time in isolation. If teams are building a high wall on screens, he drags out defenders to generate more spacing and puts his teammates in position to be successful.
In this play, he sees Richaun Holmes dropping hard, predicting a little screen and roll from Naz Reid, so Russell — who Sacramento respects as a mid-range scorer — takes one dribble toward the baseline to create a wide open 3 for Reid. A simple, yet savvy play.
Russell can manipulate defenses like few point guards can when he’s got it rolling.
Here, Minnesota is in a horns look. Reid and Malik Beasley each come up to set screens, giving Russell a quick moment to survey his options. After Anthony Edwards gets out wide, D-Lo sees Jimmy Butler stick to him. This opens the paint since Dewayne Dedmond is staying attached to Reid in Miami’s switch-heavy system. Russell slowly takes a step to his left knowing that Beasley will slip the screen, and delivers a dart for a layup.
It helps that Russell spends a good chunk of his non-starter minutes with Beasley, Jaden McDaniels, Taurean Prince and Reid, who are all very instinctive and capable of playing off of a heliocentric, offensive fulcrum. Russell’s facilitation is helpful in all of them finding a rhythm, and he has evident chemistry with them, too.
“It goes into the summertime when we were all working out together, we were popping into cities to visit guys, things like that,” Russell said after the win over Miami last week. “We developed that brotherhood.”
That chemistry shows when he takes the floor with the starters, as well, particularly in transition.
Minnesota’s transition frequency jumps by 8.8% off live rebounds (98th percentile) and 4.6% overall (96th percentile) with Russell on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass.
Russell’s uncanny ability to sprint the ball up the floor and pass open teammates becomes is another reason why it is imperative the Wolves out-rebound their opponents. The Wolves are 8-2 in games with at least 47 rebounds and 2-8 when they fail to hit that mark. On a related note, they are 4-1 when scoring at least 20 fast break points. Minnesota collected more than 47 rebounds in three of those four wins.
But where Russell’s offseason work and chemistry with his teammates appears the most is on defense. The Timberwolves are the most committed they have ever been on that end, and Russell — like is he on offense — deserves credit for being an important connective tissue that helps make everything work.
Russell stands at 6-foot-5, boasts a 6-foot-10 wingspan, and has excellent vision, with the vocal leadership, hands and timing to match — ideal for perimeter defender who lacks plus athleticism. It may be his seventh year in the NBA, but Russell’s improvement in off-ball defense and pick-and-roll defense couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Timberwolves are a much improved defense in large part because of the way they are running teams off the 3-point line. Minnesota allows the 10th-fewest 3s per game (11.6) and the second-lowest 3-point percentage (31.9%) in the NBA. Russell’s length and communication has a lot to do with it. Opponents’ 3-point frequency drops by 3.6% (90th percentile) and their 3-point shooting percentage nosedives by 9.8% (99th percentile) with Russell on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass.
Plays like this are a reason why.
Russell knows he has baseline help here, so he jumps to the shooting-hand-side of Josh Hart and runs him off the line, kickstarting a late clock scramble that yields a shot clock violation.
This type of collective defense just shows how bought in the Wolves are on that end.
“I would say just maintaining that defensive effort and that flying-around mentality, mostly effort and mentality,” said Jarred Vanderbilt, in response to a question about what the team needs to do to maintain its level of play, after the team’s win over San Antonio recently. “Everyone’s buying into their role, being prepared and just staying engaged. That’s pretty much the recipe for success for our team.”
Consistently making multiple good plays in a possession is the sign of a solid defensive player, and Russell has done that more this season than in any other. Here, D-Lo digs on the drive, forces a kick-out to a poor 3-point shooter in Matisse Thybulle (31%) and closes out perfectly to help cause a miss.
An emphasis on mastering the knowledge of personnel has been a huge part of the Timberwolves’ revamped defensive scouting.
“We’ve been on guys about watching film, and paying attention to your matchups and stuff. Guys are looking at personnel, like if he’s a run off, run him off, short close our direction of guys — force him left, force him right,” Vanderbilt added. “I feel like everybody has been locked in on that end of the floor, and I would say it’s helped the offense and the whole flow of the game.”
Russell has certainly helped feed the offensive flow with his off-ball positioning, which has been the key driver of his improvement on defense.
His plus wingspan and instinctive timing allow him to play further up the line, or in the weeds, where he close on the ball quickly and run out on the break nicely.
Pick and Roll
The Timberwolves scheme has benefitted Russell very well in this area, because he has more help at the level, where he can again be more of a defensive playmaker than a turnstile.
Here, D-Lo knows Eubanks isn’t a shooter. When he sees that Eubanks pops to the nail, he knows KAT can take Keldon Johnson on a drive and that Eubanks won’t do anything with the ball on a pass, so he trails the play and times the block perfectly.
The biggest play of Saturday night’s win was Russell putting everything I’ve talked about into one sequence. Russell comes flying around a Joel Embiid screen with his arms out so that he can clog a passing window for Tyrese Maxey. After securing the steal, he does a great job of taking two hard dribbles to occupy Embiid and Maxey, while allowing Reid and Prince to catch up and fill the lane correctly before dropping a dime to Prince for the game-winning bucket.
His defensive communication was excellent all night, too. Russell quarterbacked the team’s doubling of Embiid whenever he was on the floor, as you can see here.
(s/o @nowxuno on Twitter for the video).
The Minnesota point guard had his best performance wearing the trees around the waist in a gutsy win in Philadelphia two nights ago, pouring in an incredibly clutch (and efficient!) 35-point outburst that showcased his shining skillset.
Russell had 27 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter and overtimes on Saturday night, shooting 4/7 from 2 and 6/8 from 3. That comes after scoring 13 points behind shooting 3/6 from deep in the final 14 minutes of the Heat game, in which Russell was a +9 in 37 minutes. After two big performances, Russell is now second in 3-point percentage (41.1%) among all NBA players taking at least 4.0 3-point attempts per game in the second half; he trails only Steph Curry (42.6%).
His close friend KAT was extremely complimentary postgame.
Perhaps those who soured on Russell will finally begin to appreciate what he brings moving forward.
Karl-Anthony Towns and the Splendors of Three-Level Gravity
While Russell needs the ball on offense to open things up for his teammates, Karl-Anthony Towns has brought up the play of the Timberwolves without needing the ball.
Simply put, Towns is the most gravitationally impactful stretch big that has ever played the game of basketball. That, of course, is driven by him being the greatest shooting big that we’ve ever seen.
KAT is shooting a ridiculous (and career-high) 44.6% from 3 on 6.1 attempts per game. That’s good for second in the league among players with at least 100 3s attempted, trailing only Patty Mills (50% on 128 attempts). When you blend the volume shooting accuracy Towns possess with forward-like face-up skills, it forces defenses to play small and defend him with 4s or small-ball 5s.
Good things have happened for the Wolves when defenses do the latter, because it really opens things up for Minnesota’s big wings, especially McDaniels on this eight-game sprint. The sophomore from Seattle has quietly been expanding his offensive game this season, largely as a result of the spacing Towns creates.
Finch has started using McDaniels as a roll-man in the PnR when “bigs” are stuck to KAT on the perimeter. It has produced some nice scores, like this one.
Yeah, Finchy (S/O Anthony Edwards) has his fastball back.
(SOMEBODY CALL A CORONER!)
Outside of rolling, McDaniels is making strides as an off-the-catch attacker. Towns lifts just enough to make Embiid think Towns is going to set a screen. This takes away the only rim defender away from the tin and frees up McDaniels to rise over the 6-foot-2 Maxey for an impressive and-1.
The most encouraging thing about McDaniels’s play over the last eight games is that he is evidently getting his confidence back; that confidence has grown as a result of making a more versatile impact in a spread floor on offense — largely due to the spacing KAT creates.
“He’s way more sure of the things he’s been doing,” Finch said after the win against San Antonio on November 18. “He’s back to finding some really good cuts off KAT. That’s something that he did a lot last year.”
Dating back to last season, McDaniels has been Minnesota’s best and most opportune cutter. Phoenix is so focused on taking away KAT’s mid-post game via the double that they forget about McDaniels on this play.
Minnesota needs more active cutting from guys like Russell, McDaniels, Edwards and Vanderbilt. Buckets like this are there to be had, but then left on the table far too often because too often Wolves players get caught ball watching on offense.
Towns is a wonder when it comes to helping to get his teammates in a rhythm by creating easy shots in hand-off situations from the different passing angles he utilizes. He has the ball for less than two seconds here, but still manages to take Russell’s defender out of the play with the way he turns to make the pass.
This is a popular look that Minnesota uses to get KAT a flare screen for a weak-side 3. When KAT pops, both Embiid and Tobias Harris stay above the nail. That gravity rolls out a red carpet that Russell struts down for an easy layup.
(Side bar: I can’t believe people want(ed) to trade Towns. Are you serious? He makes the game leaps and bounds easier for everyone around him. I mean, look at this!).
Two beautiful play designs that are made possible by Towns’s gravity.
Beasley has resurrected after a tough shooting start to the season that can be attributed to poor shot mechanics due to being out of shape. In the last two years, Beasley’s conditioning was what set him apart as a shooter. Now that he’s in shape, he is once again reaping the full benefits of playing with Towns.
That screen is as good as it gets; Devin Vassell wasn’t even around KAT until after Beasley launched the shot.
KAT clears so much space for Ant that it collapses all five Magic players into the paint. Ant then makes a great read that leads to a wider-than-wide-open straightaway triple for Beasley. Cash money.
And, for good measure, I’ll break the rules because this pass was way too nice to not include. When you’re up 42 points at home, you can throw heat check passes.
While Towns has improved this season in terms of his impact without the ball, what is most noticeable is the way he is celebrating his teammates’ successes. His positive energy is palpable when you’re in the arena or watching the game through your TV. Towns fouled out before the end of regulation, but was still as locked in as ever at the end of the first overtime.
“There’s way more joy in his game. He comes to work happier. He likes his team. He likes the fact that we’re winning, that we’re competitive every night,” Finch said after the Wolves’ throttling of the Pelicans. “He’s come here into the season with the mindset to kind of get back to what he feels he is in this league, which is all-NBA caliber guy. That’s his mission and he’s been a joy to coach since I got here and this year he’s really, really focused and seems happy.”
It’s easy to be happy on the floor when you have an offense with repeatable three-man actions that are nearly impossible to stop down the stretch of close games. Finch, Russell, Towns and Edwards put that on full display against the Heat with pistol looks.
Russell is an incredibly underrated screener, too, by the way.
The Timberwolves are winning basketball games because, of late, D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns have been the wildly impactful duo we were promised. Their differing styles of impacting the game blend together perfectly to create a multiple, Finchian inverted offense that pressures the defense at all three levels. When you mix in perhaps the most dynamic young guard in the NBA, you’ve got a team ready to make the playoffs for the second time in the last 18 seasons.
"WOLVES BACK, BABY" pic.twitter.com/sbAGGMA1qo— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 25, 2021