The Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz went blow-for-blow in an interior slugfest tonight in honor of UFC 261 in Jacksonville.
After slow starts from Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns, and no offensive help from role players, the Wolves found themselves in a 14-point hole that required some soul searching after allowing their third consecutive 40-point first quarter.
Chris Finch demanded his squad to ratchet up their defensive intensity and he made key in-game adjustments to limit the Jazz’s options offensively. Utah shot 9/15 from 3 in the first frame largely because Minnesota was playing a drop coverage in pick-and-rolls (PnRs), which invites dribble penetration and makes closing out more difficult for rotating defenders.
His team responded. They gave up just 56 points in the final 36 minutes in a rare, yet brilliant defensive exhibition.
Finch made a switch to have help defenders more aggressively help at the nail (above the free throw line and below the 3-point line) and swarm Gobert when he caught the ball on the roll. That resulted in Gobert committing a season-high five turnovers and scoring nine points on six shots.
Josh Okogie infused the team with energy (especially in the second quarter) by playing a major role in rendering Gobert’s ineffective in the half court. Both of his steals came from stripping Gobert while he was trying to corral lobs over the top of the defense. He found ways to make big defensive plays in key moments that either ended a Jazz run or helped extend a Timberwolves run at different parts of the game.
Now 34-2.— Alan Horton (@WolvesRadio) April 25, 2021
Jazz had THREE double-digit scoring streaks tonight (11-0 & 10-0 1Q, 12-0 4Q) & Wolves still came back to win. https://t.co/gcyuI9Lp3A
As a whole, Wolves defenders did a much better job moving their feet and cutting off ball-handlers not just in the middle of the floor, but also when driving baseline. Minnesota forced drivers off their feet and into making tough passes that often resulted in turnovers and points the other way. Led by Edwards’ career-high five steals, the Wolves converted 20 Jazz turnovers into 23 points that helped swing the momentum of the game.
Utah scored just 0.96 points per possession (PPP), which was their second-worst performance of the year in terms of PPP, largely because they couldn’t find consistent production from anyone not named Bojan Bodganovic. Outside of Bodganovic’s 30-point night, the Jazz shot 22/62 (35%) from the floor and 12/34 (35%) from 3.
Perhaps what was most impressive about Minnesota’s defensive execution tonight was the way rookies Edwards and Jaden McDaniels stepped up in the fourth quarter when it mattered most. Our fearless leader Kyle Theige summed it up well on Twitter.
Me every time I watch Jaden McDaniels play defense: pic.twitter.com/Fz5N5XFI3i— Kyle Theige (@KyleTheige) April 25, 2021
First, McDaniels suffocates Gobert inside, then somehow wrestles away a rebound while staying inbounds. This led to a D-Lo mid-range bucket to give Minnesota 96-93 lead and firm control of the game with just over 1:15 to play.
Are you kidding me, Jaden McDaniels?— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) April 25, 2021
This incredible display of defensive discipline, strength and balance with the game on the line is completely bonkers for a 20-year-old going against an All-NBA caliber C. pic.twitter.com/CYjaa49Q6r
Edwards joined the defensive party with his game-clinching, fifth and final steal of the night, breaking up a Mike Conley lob pass to Gobert inside.
Anthony Edwards has the potential to be an on-ball problem on defense when he locks in.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) April 25, 2021
Crazy timing here to make a massive steal and draw a foul in transition that sealed a huge W in Salt Lake City. pic.twitter.com/z7QfEbF3ir
The way Edwards took over in the second half of this game on both ends of the floor just goes to show how flawed and incorrect the “empty stats” argument is when applied to Edwards in the context of the Rookie of the Year race. The common narrative is that LaMelo Ball should win because he clearly makes those around him better, but you can’t argue Edwards doesn’t do the same. When he rises to his peak and starts making superstar plays, it gives his teammates more confidence and serves as a call to action to come join him in playing dominant basketball. It’s a joy to see.
On the other end of the floor, D’Angelo Russell continued his run of sparking the Wolves’ offense off the bench in the first half. With KAT and Edwards struggling to find a consistent rhythm in the first 18 minutes of the game, Russell’s 17 first-half points on 6/10 shooting were very impactful and ultimately helped keep the Wolves within striking distance. Minnesota trailed 58-52 at the half despite being down by as much as 17 in the opening 24 minutes.
As it has been since D-Lo returned to action, KAT and Ant came alive in a dominant offensive second half, combining for 25 points on 9/19 shooting and 4/9 from deep. While the stats may not garner the “dominant” attribution, it was the downhill, attacking manner in which they got those points. Ant made it a point to attack the rim and made several impressive finishes over and around Gobert, who didn’t look like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate tonight when trying to defend the Wolves’ dynamic late-game battery.
The Minnesota core of the future was excellent offensively tonight in a game they didn’t receive much scoring help in.
The Wolves' core trio balled out again tonight:— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) April 25, 2021
• 70 points
• 26/55 FG | 9/27 3PT
• 24 rebounds
• 8 assists
• 7 steals
• 8 turnovers
Another big W in Salt Lake City.
Despite shooting 43.5% from the floor, 23.7% from deep and 60% from the free throw line, while giving up 19 3s, the Timberwolves still found a way to win with great defensive intensity, tremendous rebounding and offensive execution in clutch time. While those with their eyes on ping pong balls may be upset that Minnesota came through tonight, I’ll take a hard-earned win whenever I can get one from this young, fun and exciting squad. It’s even sweeter when you clinch the season series against the top team in the NBA.
The Wolves will next take the floor on Sunday at Target Center at 7 PM CT for their third and final meeting of the season with the Jazz.