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As the Wolves Turn: Week Six Observations

It was an exciting week in Minnesota. Just how exciting? Let’s recap the week that was.

Miami Heat v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

This new winning thing that the Minnesota Timberwolves have adopted is so much more fun than their old habits of alternating heart-breaking losses for embarrassing ones. Over the last two weeks, the Timberwolves recorded their longest winning streak in recent memory (five games) and have won six of their last seven games.

The detractors and doubters (I know there are still plenty of you out there; I see you) will try to tear this stretch down with platitudes like “they didn’t really beat anyone” or “it’s still early.” To that I respond with a respectful — “who gives a damn!”

You know what, simply telling the naysayers off wasn’t enough. Their claims must be dismantled and invalidated. The Timberwolves are currently the seventh seed in the West, and I don’t want to get carried away but…

Are the Old Wolves Dead?

Hand up, I likely prematurely asked this question when the Timberwolves fended off the Bucks in Milwaukee earlier this season. I may have jumped the gun a bit, especially since they proceeded to lose six straight games.

HOWEVER, I maintain that my eagerness wasn’t necessarily wrong, just slightly early.

What the Timberwolves have shown over the last two weeks has been incredible. If you want to diminish some of their wins and lessen your enjoyment of life and the things that make it better, I suppose that’s your prerogative. I’ll even concede that the Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans, and San Antonio Spurs aren’t very good teams. That’s where my willingness to compromise ends, though.

Beating those teams is essential to the Timberwolves making the playoffs this season. Those are the teams that nearly everyone continues to place in that bunch fighting for the play-in games. The Timberwolves of old would have at least blown one of those games, if not all three. Not only did the Timberwolves win those games, but they also won them convincingly by double digits in all three contests.

To make this stretch even more impressive, the Timberwolves beat the Memphis Grizzlies by 43, the Miami Heat by 12, and the Philadelphia 76ers in double overtime. Those three matchups were games the Timberwolves were said to have no shot at winning. They didn’t simply win, though (besides the Grizzlies game because that was just a good ole fashion whooping). The Timberwolves consistently got punched in the face. Like a lot. I’m willing to upgrade some of those to round house kicks and flying knees. Their opponents consistently kept coming at Minnesota, but the Timberwolves never caved. They stood their ground, got up off the mat, and kept fighting back. Alright I’m done (maybe) with the fighting clichés.

The Heat regularly try to intimidate and “out-tough” their opponents, but the Timberwolves couldn’t have been less impressed. When the 76ers came back from a 20-point deficit it was an all too familiar scene and felt even more inevitable when Karl-Anthony Towns fouled out. Hell, the 76ers even got the free-throw tip in at the last second to send it to double overtime. It was the reincarnation of the Kings game the previous season and the free-throw shenanigans that happened there. The Timberwolves should’ve been dead. But they weren’t.

I’ve been saying it all season that this year’s team feels different. I was harsh in my last recap where I ridiculed the team for the same old shit we’ve always seen from them through their embarrassing losing streak. To their credit, the Timberwolves awoke from their slumber and remembered how to play basketball. This team will likely win 45-50% of their games this season which means there will be more losing streaks. It’s a long season and this team is prone to roller coaster performances. I’m prepared to endure a few more losing streaks, but this team has finally proven that it won’t define them, and they will fight back.

Anthony Edwards is Perfect

I could go into a statistical deep dive on the strengths of Edwards and what he’s doing to help propel this team to their ultimate goal, but it almost feels anti-Edwards to do that. Instead, I’m going to rely on this emotional high and bask in the obscenely enchanting vibes of Anthony Edwards.

As far as I’m concerned, Edwards has already ascended to National Treasure status and this week only bolstered his claim. The absolute pinnacle of Edwards as a player was their game against the Heat. The 33 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists were an incredible stat line, but we know that Edwards has no issues getting those numbers when his shot was falling. What took his performance over the top was the charisma, bravado, and cavalier way he carried himself.

For starters, Edwards graced us with another physics defining dunk. I don’t care that the referee was a coward and rewarded a dangerous non-basketball play. Edwards turned Gabe Vincent into a stepstool and then stood over him the way a five-star recruit stands over a middle-schooler at summer camp.

Quick sidebar for all of you charge supporters. The way Vincent “took a charge” is the biggest bush league play in basketball. I’m all for charges where guys move their feet on the perimeter or the ball-handler is clearly out of control, but undercutting someone is dangerous and should never be rewarded. Since when is standing still and holding your crotch a basketball play? Learn how to play defense, move your feet, and be timelier with your rotations. It is the worst call in basketball.

And we’re back. In my personal record book, Edwards added Vincent to his ever-growing list of players he has emasculated and sent to the NetherRealm. Edwards wasn’t done there, though.

With a slight push in the back, Edwards received the oh so threatening glare of Jimmy Butler. To say Edwards was unfazed would be putting it likely. Butler did his typical performative posturing to which Edwards looked at with amusement. Edwards knows Butler is an entertainer of the likes that would make Clayface from Harley Quinn jealous, and he said as much “He ain’t finna fight nobody out there. All that walking up on each other, that’s stuff for the birds, man. I ain’t about to fight. I don’t get into all that. That shit be fake.”

Don’t get me wrong, Butler would wipe the floor with any of us reading this and in an actual fight I imagine you’d have to actually kill him to win. I don’t doubt his heart, toughness, and scrappiness, but Butler isn’t going to do anything. It wasn’t too long ago his teammate got runover by a Serbian freight train and Butler didn’t want to scrap until there was a hoard of referees, coaches, and security between them. For Edwards, a 20-year-old, to immediately call the bluff of and call out one of the league’s notorious “tough-guys” is yet another way he continues to capture my heart.

Tough Stretch for the D’Angelo Russell Haters

D’Angelo Russell isn’t a perfect player, but some of the hate spewed at him has never made sense. Sure, he’s been inefficient and frustrating, but the Timberwolves are significantly better when he is on the floor than when he isn’t. Without Russell’s super-human performance against the 76ers, the Timberwolves lose that game by double digits. It wasn’t simply his scoring that propelled that performance. Russell’s defense was excellent and has been significantly improved all season.

I’m going to stop you there. I’m not saying Russell is a great defender. He isn’t. But what he’s provided this season is leaps and bounds the best of his career. He is working at getting over screens, using his length to disrupt passing lanes, and making well-timed rotations.

According to Cleaning the Glass (they take out garbage time stats and full-court heaves), the Timberwolves’ net rating is 23.5 points per 100 possessions better with Russell on the floor than off. That differential ranks in the 98th percentile of point guards. Their offensive rating on/off differential is +5.2 (72nd percentile), and their defensive rating on/off differential is -18.3 (99th percentile). Some of those numbers are buoyed by Russell missing the Los Angeles Clippers’ blow outs and there are some line-up shenanigans going on, but those numbers aren’t a complete fluke. Russell has now logged 563 minutes (per Cleaning the Glass) which is an ample sample size.

I know Russell has been one of the more divisive players among the fan base since he arrived in Minnesota. At this point, though, it’s pretty simple, the Timberwolves are drastically better with Russell. I’m sure this didn’t fully convince most of you, but just try rooting for him for a few games. Mix things up a bit. If you hate it, by all means revert to your previous ways. But rooting for someone and enjoying their successes is a lot more fun than the alternative.