Whatever it is you’re feeling after a truly horrifying Minnesota Timberwolves Game 3 loss that will be indefinitely etched into our memories, I feel it, too.
Nearly 24 years after I was born into the fires of Minnesota sports fandom (thanks for choosing UST, Mom!) — forged along the way by hellish experiences at the hands of the teams, players and coaches I pour so much of my energy, time and money into — I am still learning that this rock bottom feeling always has another depth to descend to.
The hundreds of thousands of homegrown Minnesotans that still call this place home have experienced just about every possible feeling a sports team can give them in their lifetimes. Our so-called unbreakable hearts always have a way of breaking and reforming, as our expectations lower with each successive heartbreak as a means of avoiding the next one.
Despite that, this one feels different.
For Minnesotans like myself, we’ve fearlessly given our hearts to our favorite teams, with the success of the Minnesota Lynx as the only true, lasting success to point to out of the core professional sports teams in the area.
The Timberwolves have been a perennial laughing stock of the NBA for most of my conscious life. The first basketball memories I have are of seeing in-person a rookie wearing the No. 23 Cleveland threads in Target Center in 2003 and Kevin Garnett jumping on the scorer’s table in 2004. Outside of that, the Timber-woes are all I’ve known.
This season, thanks to incredible effort from Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, Chris Finch and company, has given us a feeling that the winds of change are whistling off the banks of the Mississippi River through the wind tunnels of Downtown Minneapolis.
Finally, we had a team we could pour our hearts into, after 18 years of the franchise remaining unworthy of anyone’s heartbreak. Young Wolves fans like me have never given the Wolves a heart for them to break.
But on Thursday night, our hearts were collectively snapped in half and stomped on by One of Us. As Apple Valley native and Memphis Grizzlies point guard Tyus Jones made clutch play after clutch play to suck the air out of a building he knows oh so well, we braced for what we had never seen before — a Wolves team we believe in unraveling in a playoff meltdown.
The play-in game experience only emboldened Wolves fans to believe this season was truly different from those of old, and strengthened their hearts after a fourth-quarter scare.
Nothing can prepare you for the real thing.
Minnesota shot out of cannon from the tip, building a 26-point lead in the first 13:32 of the game, capped off by a huge Malik Beasley triple that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
“The first quarter was the highest high I’ve ever had as a Wolves fan,” one friend in attendance texted me after the game.
In truly astonishing, yet somehow foreseeable form, the Wolves shifted from flooring it to slamming on the brakes not once, but twice. Minnesota lost the final 10:28 of the first quarter by 19 points to lead by seven at the half, before building the advantage back up to 25 with just 15 minutes to play in the game. Just when fans started to feel as though the first half was behind them, the avalanche began.
The Grizzlies outscored the Wolves 29-4 in the subsequent 6:24 to tie the game on a Desmond Bane 3-pointer, and the rest was history.
That same friend turned to a classic Minnesotan follow-up with his next text. “In the Wolves’ defense, they haven’t broken my heart before.”
Thursday night was one hell of a way to start.
Eliciting every possible emotion out of those of us who have been far too intensely faithful for far too long was quite the introduction that none of us will forget anytime soon. In the truest sense, I felt the highest of highs and lowest of lows as a Wolves fan in one night.
I have never seen the team I devote too much sweat, time and frustration into throttle a team in the playoffs at Target Center and appear to be having the time of their lives doing it. Beasley and Edwards celebrating after that 3-pointer that escalated the lead to 26 in the second quarter had me standing up in a gulf-side condo clapping and screaming for no one to hear except God and the four walls around me.
While yes, I cover the team and have a strong handle on any emotion I have while I am around the team, believe me – I felt that too. So, when it started to feel as though the four walls surrounding you, wherever you were, were closing in on you, I felt that too.
Every high. Every low. The stress of every play. Winning a prize pick. Losing a prize pick. The anger potentially driving you to a forced apathetic silence. The tough time sleeping. The going to Twitter for an escape only to be reminded of what we can’t get out of our minds. The waking up the next morning looking up at the ceiling asking yourself, “Did that really happen?” The questioning of, “How do they recover from that?” The “Why would I do this to myself again on Saturday night?” The wondering whether a supermax contract extension is appropriate or not for a franchise cornerstone that has stained, power washed, and re-stained his standing in the league over the course of the last four games. The asking “Why didn’t he call a timeout?”
When I mean all of it, I mean all of it. You are not alone. I felt that, too.
But what I do not feel is a responsibility to re-litigate the subjects of blame for the events of Thursday night. There’s nothing positive to come out of it.
In place of that, I will offer some perspective.
I’m fortunate to be here.
Two years ago, COVID-19 left me riddled with blood clots throughout my left leg and up into my inferior vena cava. No, I don’t expect you to understand the significance of that (s/o to all the nurses and doctors out there). There was a complete blockage of one of the more crucial parts of the body. Had it not been for devotion of the nurses and doctors at North Memorial to dig as deep as they could to find solutions to my problems and carry out every tool at their disposal to help me, I wouldn’t be able to feel all the emotions we experienced on Thursday night. I got the tests I needed and underwent major five-hour surgery two weeks later to remove the blockages, followed by double leg surgery last June.
For whatever reason, by way of a minor miracle, I got a second chance.
For 18 years, Wolves fans haven’t had any chance. We used to pray for times like this – for an opportunity to get behind a team that was different.
When Edwards and Patrick Beverley jumped up on that scorers’ table after clinching a playoff spot, that was an acknowledgement of everything that we have endured. The KG trade, the McHale and Wittman years only to be stricken by the Rambis and Kahn years, Thibs abandoning Flip’s blueprint, and everything in between.
It was as if those two said directly, “You deserve this. This is different.”
Fans had every reason to believe that after an epic, gutsy comeback win in the play-in game. When a Game 1 victory in Memphis followed that, some fans felt indomitable. Thinking about that for a second. Wolves fans feeling indomitable. Some of the same people who hid their fandom to save ridicule, who are experts on franchise ineptitude and the Same Old Wolves, felt so strongly that this team was different that they didn’t see a world without the Wolves winning this playoff series.
When those folks woke up yesterday to see “Memphis leads 2-1” on their phones, confirming it wasn’t a bad dream, you can only imagine how they felt.
Waking up thinking that Twitter’s trove of popular figureheads and NBA fans who have fallen in love with the Wolves would reverse course in favor of proclaiming, “Same Old Wolves!” is a tough pill to swallow, as is fearing that Towns has lost most, if not all, of the goodwill he accumulated around the league this year with his postseason play. Questioning whether or not the Wolves can invest ~$201 million more in him over five additional seasons on top of the two remaining isn’t the most fun exercise to perform right now, especially if you spent much of the season defending him.
Even though that is all fair, those people should simply try — just try — not to let that feeling ruin the one they’ve experienced since those first preseason games, when the thought of “We may have something here” first entered their minds.
For giving all Wolves fans six months of something to proudly believe in — after 18 years of comprehensive misery — this team has earned a second chance.
Thankfully, Game 3 wasn’t a single elimination game.
Most of our major heartbreak in other sports has taken place in single elimination games – the ones that make you sit with a feeling of despair when thinking about that team during the long off-seasons.
Blair Walsh didn’t have the opportunity to kick a 27-yard field goal two nights later. The Vikings can’t run it back in Philadelphia for a shot to win a Super Bowl at home. The Twins can’t play the Yankees tomorrow night in another wild card game to end the drought after a 4-0 start in the top of the first. Minnesota United can’t get those final 20 minutes back.
But this is a seven-game series and all is not lost in one night.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell and the Wolves will take the floor tonight in front of a home crowd that deserves better.
But, a huge reason Minnesota was successful two nights ago was because of a batshit crazy loud group of 19,000 once-closeted fans passionately proclaiming a collective love for a team that made an always-miserable Minneapolis winter not only bearable, but fun.
One night, no matter how frustrating, cannot undo that.
I am excited not only to see how the Timberwolves players and coaches respond, but also to see how the fans respond. This is all new for them, too.
However, if you are anxiously awaiting your trip to Target Center this evening, just remember. You used to dream about nights like tonight.
So has Edwards. As has Towns. Russell? Yup.
How about Finch, who traveled all across the globe coaching basketball for an opportunity like Thursday — his first chance as an NBA head coach to take his home sideline in a playoff game — just to have it unfold how it did? I know he will do everything in his power to right this ship.
His defensive adjustments in Game 3 were phenomenal.
Minnesota destroying Memphis in fast break points (20-5) and points off turnovers (25-15).— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) April 22, 2022
That's been driven by Finch's adjustment of sagging off shooters and wings driving into a crowded paint with crowded passing lanes.
A defensive masterclass so far tonight from the Wolves
Wolves players possess an unwavering belief in their coach. Their effort on the defensive end, fueled in part by a raucous home crowd, shows that. They took away what the Grizzlies are best at — getting out in transition and scoring points off turnovers — in a manner that feels repeatable if they bring an A+ effort (which should never be an issue in the playoffs).
Minnesota held Memphis to 104 points. Before last night, the Wolves were 19-5 this season when holding its opponents under 105 points scored, with one of the losses coming in a COVID-ridden game against the New York Knicks. Simply put, an NBA team can’t expect to win when scoring 12 points in a quarter in game, let alone doing that twice in one playoff game. Minnesota’s worst scoring output in a quarter during the regular season was 19 points; an offensive slog like Thursday is highly unlikely to repeat itself.
Wolves fourth quarter shooting:— jace frederick (@JaceFrederick) April 22, 2022
Pat Bev: 0-5
Total: 3 for 19, 1 for 11 from deep
From and X’s and O’s perspective, I’m excited to see how Chris Finch responds on Saturday.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) April 22, 2022
He’s a really sharp coach who has maximized this roster better than anyone thought he could.
The perimeter D adjustments were terrific tonight. Hope the offensive ones shine through, too.
The Wolves were the league’s second-best half court offense after January 1. They know how to execute. Finch will have to call more plays that involve and maximize his three best players — especially Towns — instead of defaulting to always trusting his players to make the right plays in a free-flowing offense on most trips down. Part of that includes playing Jordan McLaughlin at point guard in the minutes Russell sits; J-Mac’s absence as a calming offensive conductor was felt in a major way in Game 3.
Every playoff team has to live and die by way of what got them there. Towns was the most impactful force propelling this group to the playoffs; Finch cannot let the Wolves stare down the barrel of a 3-1 series deficit going back to Memphis because he couldn’t find ways to get KAT more involved as a scorer.
Whether you want to hear it or not, this series ain’t over. If the Wolves board the returning plane to Memphis tied at two apiece, this is either team’s series for the taking.
Minnesota owes its fans answers to very valid questions about who they are. Are these Wolves truly different? Can they respond to real adversity in a playoff setting? How much fight do they have? Is Karl-Anthony Towns truly a franchise player?
Tonight is a prime opportunity for the Wolves to definitively answer those questions — and every other one that has been asked of them in the past 36 hours — not only for their fans, but also for the Grizzlies and the league at-large.
But a key part of sending that message the Minnesota Timberwolves want to make clear tonight includes the fans. That when the chips are down, Minnesota isn’t phased by a meltdown, instead rises to support their squad, and proves right those touting Target Center as a hostile road environment.
After all I’ve been through, I woke up this morning like I do every morning: with good reason to be incredibly grateful. Today, that reason is because I have the chance to be in the building tonight to attend (and cover) the first Wolves home playoff game of my life.
After all that Timberwolves have been through, the only thing they’ve wanted for the last 18 seasons is a chance. The circumstances aren’t perfect, but tonight is another time we’ve prayed for. The chance to support a playoff Minnesota Timberwolves team.
This self-aware and long-suffering yet fun-loving fanbase knows they deserve answers, but counting out the Wolves now, for better or worse, isn’t what it has suffered through the past 18 years for.