When Utah Jazz point guard Mike Conley gave his team the lead on a contested 3-pointer with 6.4 seconds on the game clock, it felt like a rerun of an old movie. That movie that you’ve seen a million times but find yourself enduring every time it comes across your television.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have been the star of this movie for the better part of two decades. On Monday night, instead of fluffing their lines when they got the ball back for the following possession, Chris Finch’s Wolves came up with their own alternate ending to that played-out movie.
The mid-season coaching hire has formed a habit of outwitting his opposing sideline strollers, but this was his crème de la crème of end-of-game successes. A finishing blow that handed the Timberwolves their second winning streak of the 2020-21 campaign and their first since they beat the same Jazz team in the second game of the season.
A quick think back to the last time Finch sealed a game with a brilliant play call will take you back to an away win against the Phoenix Suns in late March. On that occasion — the one in the clip below — Juancho Hernangomez was the beneficiary, jetting to the basket of a decoy set that centered around Karl-Anthony Towns 30 feet from the rim and Anthony Edwards in the backcourt.
For play calling fanatics, that was an ‘inject it into my veins’ moment, but last night’s variation of the same set was even more mouth-watering. If you haven’t basked in its glory, or you just want to relive it one more time, here’s the play:
It’s a flurry of moving bodies and scrambling defenders at full speed, but the intricacies are a snapshot into the mind of Finch. He has exhibited the ability to mastermind fourth quarter wonders throughout his tenure, a skill set that has helped the Timberwolves rank 2nd in fourth quarter net rating (+14.3) over the last 15 games, per NBA.com.
Just like the play in Phoenix, the whole set is a house of mirrors. It’s a magician’s sleight of hand. A game of deception that twists the opponent’s strength into their fatal weakness. For the Quin Snyder’s Jazz, their strength defensively is eliminating the offense’s biggest threats and making a less dangerous commodity beat them.
Chris Finch counted on that being the case, and that’s exactly why the first cogs to turn on this play is actions to get Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns free to shoot a jumper or quickly attack off the catch. The pair almost screen for each other at the elbow, allowing Towns to get out above the arc and Edwards to slide to the strong side corner. This gets the defense shifting and, more importantly, gets two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert to focus on multiple things at once.
Now, with Gobert preoccupied with the dangers of Edwards, Towns is allowed to rub off Ant’s shoulder and start to pop without obstruction. This is the beginning of the end for Utah. Gobert and Mike Conley (who is guarding D’Angelo Russell) are now in a bind. Russell seems to be going to set a down screen to continue to aid Towns, which Conley presumably assumes means he and Gobert are switching assignments — a smart decision by Conley.
However, Gobert completely bungles the switch. Instead of staying with Russell, he sprints out to retrieve his big man matchup. It may seem like an uncharacteristic mistake, and it is, but that blunder is born out of years of hard work from Towns. Years of honing his shooting artistry and slowly but surely demanding more attention from defenders.
Known around the Association now as a perennial 3-point sniper, defenders know you can’t leave him with a clean look from deep. Gobert is well aware that Towns can fire away over Conley, who is 10 inches shorter than the Timberwolves franchise pillar. So, naturally, his brain goes into panic mode. He needs to get out there and stop his direct opponent from finishing the game with a deep triple. As a result, you get this screengrab.
As you know by now, that leaves D’Angelo Russell all alone. Like, he could have scheduled a pedicure and secured a back rub before anybody was going to catch him and prevent Ricky Rubio from spoon-feeding him for an open layup. Throughout the play, Russell was virtually an innocent bystander. That was by design, though — Finch knew his action would force the defense, specifically Gobert, to dedicate his energy toward Edwards and Towns.
And just like that, Russell is sprung open. An open layup awaits. A second straight win succeeding that. Towns’ 3-point gravity was abracadabra, the waving of the wand, the sleight of hand. In reality, Russell was the centerpiece all along. Another Chris Finch magic trick.
Chris Finch is a god damn wizard.— Canis Hoopus (@canishoopus) April 27, 2021