The brightest moments create the most opportune times for players to emerge onto the scene and, tonight, Jaylen Nowell did just that.
The former PAC-12 Player of the Year continues to rise to the occasion for a Minnesota Timberwolves team that needs secondary creation and scoring juice to combat the absence of Anthony Edwards and Malik Beasley’s uncharacteristic shooting slump.
Nowell poured in 16 points (13 of which came in the second half), on 4/7 from 2-point range and 2/2 from deep, to go along with four rebounds and three assists. The short-handed Wolves out-scored a decimated Dallas Mavericks bunch by six points in Nowell’s 18 minutes.
“He was amazing again tonight. Hopefully everybody’s paying attention to him,” leader of The Jaylen Nowell Fan Club D’Angelo Russell said after the important win. “So, it’s our job as veteran players to continue to stay on him and continue to give them that focus and let them know, ‘Your time’s coming. Be ready.’ It could be as easy as your time comes and you’re not ready, and then you’re deeper into the doghouse. Just being ready, staying on these guys and continue to bring that to the game.”
Jaylen Nowell catch-and-shoot 3, created by the D’Angelo Russell + Naz Reid pick-and-roll pic.twitter.com/jnlVukJ37l— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) December 20, 2021
The manner in which the Timberwolves veterans have supplemented the already apparent confidence in Nowell is undoubtedly a factor in his recent success.
“That’s everything. That actually kept me sane. It’s tough. As a competitor, in general, to just sit and watch even though they were doing really well. ... So, for them to continue to talk to me, it makes me feel apart,” Nowell said after the game. “That’s why I’m playing the type of games I am now, is because they kept encouraging me telling me, ‘Just stay working, just stay ready.’ I’ve made sure that when my name was called that I was going to be ready.”
While scoring 16 points was impressive, it was the time at which Nowell’s buckets came that accentuated their impact.
The Seattle native stopped the bleeding in the midst of a Dallas 3-point barrage with five points in the first 1:11 he played in the third quarter and later drained a 3 to retake the lead. He came back in the fourth like a hired gun whose target was opposing momentum. Nowell assisted on a Naz Reid dunk to tie the game, then made a monster triple to stretch the lead to three (forcing a Dallas timeout), and 90 seconds later, he created an open mid-range shot to extend the lead to three, which the Wolves never relented.
Jaylen Nowell isolation pull-up jumper, impressive space creation with the crossover pic.twitter.com/kHlIIN07QJ— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) December 20, 2021
“He’s just a consummate professional. Everyone on our team knows what he can do. ... Anytime he steps on the court we know how much of a bucket he is. We just want him to be a star in his role. When he comes in the game, we want him to shoot. We want him to be aggressive and we want him to be Jaylen Nowell,” Karl-Anthony Towns said postgame. “He was fantastic tonight. He’s been fantastic not only as a player, but as a teammate, with his character and his ability to sacrifice for the next man and be able to cheer as if he was in.”
Towns was quite the professional himself tonight.
The Wolves’ offense fulcrum asserted himself early in the game mostly by quickly attacking from the post on the catch before Kristaps Porzingis could meet him at the rim.
The soon-to-be three-time All-Star spotlighted his face-up-and-go skillset against physically inferior defenders that couldn’t offer much resistance. Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber were both in foul trouble early in the game; that threw off Jason Kidd’s rotations and allowed the Wolves to work into a rhythm offensively in the second quarter, which was helpful in evening out the work Tim Hardaway Jr. was putting in on the other end of the floor.
Russell took advantage of the Mavs’ foul situation by punishing switches and imploring his teammates to play with quicker pace. Those changes yielded two big 3s that extended the lead to eight and 10, respectively, in the closing three minutes of the first half.
The Mavs combatted that rhythm with evident chippiness that reared its head in the closing minute of the first half, when Timberwolves forward Jarred Vanderbilt and Finch were hit with technical fouls.
That response fueled Kidd’s bunch, especially forward Dorian Finney-Smith, out of the break. The dependable two-way wing scored 14 of his 23 points in the third quarter, talking plenty of trash to the Wolves (both on the floor and on the bench) along the way. That edge was necessary on a night Dallas was playing without Luka Dončić and lost Porzingis in the third quarter due to right foot soreness.
Finch’s team cashed in on the defense they faced in Porzingis’s absence, thanks to its veteran leaders calming down their teammates and re-focusing in the fourth quarter.
“I think this team does a really good job of holding themselves accountable. I think it starts with each other. Like, if you call them out at halftime or in a film session, they take ownership,” Finch said postgame. “They’re not overly sensitive or upset about it. I think it starts right then. That, then, allows them to handle each other’s criticism. They’re out there trying to solve problems.”
The Wolves regroup and solved the problem of attacking a bigger and slower Mavs defense without Porzingis through unselfish and empowering play. The consistently spread out, dynamic Wolves’ offense that featured a beautiful blend of speed, ball-handling, rim rolling, and shooting proved to be too much for Dallas’s impaired defense.
Jaden McDaniels is a useful weapon that brings all of those things to the table, so Finch deployed him for 32 minutes tonight, tied for the second-most minutes he has played in a game this season.
His cutting popped, but more importantly, the confidence in his shot and the way he attacks off the dribble is as high as it has ever been in his year-plus NBA career.
The Federal Way, Washington native scored 12 points on a viable shot diet including four 2s and four 3s, all of which were assertive fires. Best of all, his biggest hit of the night came when the Wolves needed him most. Leading by three with 4:30 left to play, McDaniels let it rip with Finney-Smith right in his face and gave the team some breathing room.
Big Mac with the big buckets pic.twitter.com/zwpmjTjGzg— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) December 20, 2021
The pass Towns made to McDaniels was a perfect encapsulation of his playmaking all night long: pressure the defense, stay under control, make the right reads and complete simple passes.
“I thought tonight I was very aggressive going to the basket, just trying to really dominate the paint,” Towns said. “I put a lot of pressure on the defense and it led to a lot more open shots for 3s and it gave us a lot of chances to change the offense as we pleased during the game, the gravity I was pulling. I’m very happy with how everything went.”
It’s hard not to be happy with how everything went if you can hit shots like this to put opponents away.
KARL FROM ST. PAUL pic.twitter.com/MUuR8tOgC6— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) December 20, 2021
The Wolves got it to the finish line with a final of 111-105, marking their fourth win in a row, and one that gets them back to an even 15-15 (9-9 at home) on the season. Minnesota’s next game, a rematch with the Mavs on Tuesday in Dallas, raises plenty of interesting questions.
Will Porzingis be able to play? Will the Mavs get back any of the five players they were without tonight, including Dončić? Marc Stein reported Dončić would be out until this week at the earliest, which would make Tuesday a somewhat generous return time.
Luka Doncic will be out until next week at the earliest, Coach Jason Kidd says, with Doncic now scheduled to spend the weekend in Dallas while the team is in Minneapolis to stay with the training staff and treat left ankle soreness that has sidelined him for three straight games.— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) December 15, 2021
The Wolves are already without Edwards, Taurean Prince and most recently, Josh Okogie (who was entered into the league’s health and safety protocols today), but will more players enter protocols given that Lakers guard Kent Bazemore — whom the Wolves matched up with at Target Center on Friday — tested positive Sunday morning?
Health will be of the utmost importance for the Wolves moving forward, because of what the team is capable of at (close to) full strength.
“When we’re a healthy team, I think we’re one of the most dangerous teams,” Russell said after the game in response to a question in which I asked him about the team’s offensive growth over the last month.
It seems more Minnesota players entering the league’s health and safety protocols is almost imminent at this point, which makes every win they can get in the meantime that much more important. Pat Bev is enjoying it, so I will, too.