As each fourth quarter possession played out the mounting anxiety inside Target Center finally reached its breaking point, sweeping a stunned silence over a building whose seemingly indestructible crowd wasn’t ready to come to terms with the end of a magical run.
In classic, poetical Minnesota sports fashion, the final nail was driven into the season’s coffin not only by a former Timberwolf, but a player who couldn’t be more proud of his Minnesota roots.
After missing two wide open 3s with 2:43 and 2:36 remaining in the game (with a chance to go up five on the line), Apple Valley native Tyus Jones knew he couldn’t leave a floor he knows so well without a bang.
Jaden McDaniels drained a massive 3 to pull Minnesota within one at the 1:34 mark of the fourth quarter. Fighting off a feeling of not again, the Wolves crowd exploded with belief before Jones left his mark.
The former Duke standout left his feet with the shot clock running down and Jordan McLaughlin in his grill, but none of it mattered. With 1:09 left to play, Jones uncorked a 3, that you knew was good the second it left his hand, to give Memphis a four-point lead it never surrendered.
The shot simply put a cap on how Memphis fought back in a game they never looked too comfortable in, much how they appeared for most of this hard-fought series.
Despite that, Memphis was right at home in winning time, no matter what building they played in.
Taylor Jenkins’ resilient Grizzlies group delivered a slow, painful end for the Wolves using the same weapons they wielded in Games 2, 3 and 5: offensive rebounding and a never-ending fourth quarter fight.
Memphis grabbed 17 offensive rebounds they turned into 15 points, including three boards resulting in five points in crucial fourth-quarter moments.
Forward Brandon Clarke stamped his campaign for a place on the Mount Rushmore of Wolves Killers with another tremendous 17-point, 11-rebound performance that left Wolves fans feeling helpless and frustrated. That feeling was only exacerbated by the fact it came in support of another underwhelming night from Ja Morant, who scored 17 points on 4/14 shooting and turned it over five times, but did drop 11 dimes.
Conversely, Minnesota succumbed to an internal battle that has afflicted them all series long: late game execution.
Despite a career-high 24 points from McDaniels — who delivered big 3 after big 3 in pivotal moments in a performance that showcased why he is such a special prospect —, Minnesota couldn’t manufacture enough easy looks for its best players when it mattered most.
Wolves head coach Chris Finch benched a struggling D’Angelo Russell for the final 4:53 in favor of McLaughlin, who was phenomenal in sparking a key third quarter run to position the Wolves with a 10-point lead entering the final frame.
“Jordan, we just had a lot of pop with him out there. He was able to get to the heart of the defense, create pace. That was huge for us,” Finch said postgame. “D-Lo had a great season for us, and he had a hard time settling into this series.”
While McLaughlin was instrumental in getting the ball moving throughout that run and making key defensive plays, he couldn’t do it alone in the clutch.
The ball stopped moving as the Wolves looked to get the ball in the hands of its stars, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards, who didn’t have enough in the tank to bring the Wolves home to the finish line after leaving everything they had on the floor.
Looking Back With Pride
This run was special for Towns, who shared that this group of players and coaches helped him find joy in playing basketball again. When his tremendous, career season came to a close, he took it all in.
Karl-Anthony Towns made good on his promise to the late, great Flip Saunders to bring the Wolves back to the playoffs.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) April 30, 2022
A truly inspiring, outstanding season from him.
He took a moment on the way out to thank the fans, who played a huge role in the team’s return relevancy. pic.twitter.com/21sEJoJKJW
Towns was asked about what he went through his mind postgame.
“Just how much this city, this team has given me. Really made me enjoy basketball again. I looked at half-court and thought about everything I’ve been through and I’m just appreciative of how far I’ve come and the guys I have in this locker room,” he said in a subdued yet grateful tone. “It’s an honor to play with them and chill with them and have this moment with them. These guys did a lot for me. Coaching staff, teammates, this city, the fans.”
This city and the Wolves organization weren’t the only things on his mind, though. Just before leaving the floor, Towns kissed the inside of his wrist as a tribute to his late mother Jackie, who passed away from COVID-19 in April of 2020.
“I prayed and gave thanks to my mother, for showing me what love was and allowing me to show these guys what love is, for allowing me to be the man that I needed to be for these guys, not only as a basketball player, but as a man, in their personal lives and helping in any way that I could,” Towns added. “It’s because of her. So a silent prayer I said at halfcourt, and I just thought about all that. It meant a lot to have that moment.”
However, everything Towns has experienced this season only makes him more excited for the future. He is widely expected to be named to the All-NBA Third Team; that honor will make him eligible to receive a five-year, $201 million supermax contract extension this offseason, a contract the Timberwolves will surely offer him and Towns will sign when it is presented to him.
“I think this is the beginning of something special. I feel like for one of the first times in this franchise where a lot of pieces are falling into place,” he said. “I love this city. So obviously tings will happen this summer. When they happen, they happen.”
Most importantly, moving forward Towns knows that the league doesn’t view his team the same way, largely due to his monstrous efforts this season.
“We said we were going to be great, we said we wanted to be special, and when we stepped into the locker room and looked into everyone’s eyes, I could see that they meant what they said,” Towns said of his teammates’ commitment to greatness. “Get ready for the next run because that next run is going to be something special. I think the league understands who we are, they know what we are, not that laughing stock team like everyone has tried to paint us for all these years.”
Towns’ coach heaped praise on him following an emotional end to a glorious season.
“He was extremely efficient. I thought his defense was excellent, as well, and I liked his leadership. We asked him to come into this season with (the thought) that the best way he can lead our team is with the best version of himself, which gives us a great chance to win every night, and something that people want to follow,” Finch said. “He made it all about winning this year, and he’s made it all about winning since I’ve been here.”
Finch is moving forward proud of everything this team accomplished in his first full season at the helm of the Timberwolves.
“I just said [to the team after the game] a hell of a season, particularly the second half. This just provides us with the foundation to keep moving forward,” he said. “We know what this experience can do for us headed into the offseason. What we have to do better; our habits with the roster; everything.”
Two key pieces of the Wolves’ roster moving forward are 20-year-old Edwards and 21-year-old McDaniels, each of whom played phenomenal basketball to close out individual seasons that were extremely encouraging steps forward.
The exciting young duo perfectly complement a superstar like Towns and nights like tonight are a perfect example. Edwards and McDaniels combined for 54 of the team’s 106 points on 18/33 shooting, including 9/16 from 3 and 9/12 from the free throw line to go with nine rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals.
That type of collective performance has the pair very excited to attack their offseason work and come back next season with added skills that will take their games to the next level.
Anthony Edwards says he's going to work on being able to score in the mid-range, between floaters and pull-ups, so he can score more effectively from everywhere— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) April 30, 2022
Jaden McDaniels says the biggest thing for him this summer is improving his on-ball game and adding some weight.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) April 30, 2022
He feels confident in adding PnR ball-handling and off-catch attacks to his bag - it'd be a huge addition for the Wolves' offense
“Man, I’m ready to put in the work this summer,” an excited Edwards said postgame. “I see what it takes to be able to play at a high level in the playoffs and you got to be able to make tough shots, after tough shots, after tough shots.”
One thing is for certain. If Edwards and McDaniels can play to their potential, they are destined to make Minnesota a playoff force for a minimum of seven more seasons.
When Edwards was asked about what the duo can do (on a timeline that matches KAT’s supermax, by the way), his face lit up and he started nodding while remarking, “Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir.”
“It’s gonna be scary.”
Tonight’s loss left the Wolves with two key questions as they enter a pivotal summer that can serve as a launch pad for future success if they play their cards correctly.
1) Will D’Angelo Russell be back next season?
After an epic performance in the play-in game that helped bring playoff NBA basketball back to Target Center, Russell struggled profusely in this series against the Grizzlies, the opponent he enjoyed the most success against this season.
D-Lo scored only 12.0 points per game on 33.3/38.7/75.0 shooting splits, 2.5 rebounds, 6.7 assists to 2.8 turnovers and didn’t drive winning at a high level in this series.
He is this team’s third star, but to this point in his Timberwolves career — as evidenced also by the playoffs — he has not produced in the way players on max contracts are expected to. Russell has one year left on his contract beyond this one, which makes him extension eligible.
The Wolves and Russell’s camp figure to be a ways off on what an extension would look like. He hasn’t produced like a max player, but it’s tough for players paid the maximum to accept less than that after they have already earned a max contract. If the two sides cannot agree on an extension, the question of whether or not a trade makes sense will enter the foreground of the Wolves’ offseason.
McLaughlin’s emergence as a player who gets the best out of Towns and Edwards in the half-court while playing at Finch’s preferred pace muddies the waters of Russell’s future in Minnesota. Russell was fantastic for stretches of the regular season — and took big strides defensively — but was inconsistent and struggled to find the bottom of the need for extended periods, too. That is understandable for a streaky offensive guard, but less defensible when you consider the expectations.
If and when that domino falls, the Wolves’ offseason will start to take shape.
2) How can Minnesota solve its rebounding problem?
The Wolves were the worst defensive rebounding team in basketball this team and it showed in an ugly way in the playoffs.
Minnesota will select 19th in the NBA Draft, which takes place June 23, as well as three more times in the second round.
There are several big men who figure to be in play in the neighborhood of that 19th pick, such as Duke center and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Mark Williams and Auburn center Walker Kessler and Naismith National Defensive Player of the Year, who the Wolves have scouted extensively according to KSTP’s Darren Wolfson.
Each offers a different offensive skillset but are dominant rim protectors that would be excellent backups to Towns from Day 1 and offer positional flexibility to even pair next to Towns in the front-court, bumping him down to the 4.
The free agent big man pool is extremely scarce. The Wolves won’t have many options that would definitively be an upgrade from Naz Reid, let alone on solely the glass.
I’d be surprised if Minnesota goes the free agency route, simply because it would make more sense from a value and rotation perspective to try and trade one of their three second-round picks along with an existing player to make a play for an interior presence that can move the needle on the glass and on the defensive interior.