The Portland Trail Blazers punched the Minnesota Timberwolves in the mouth coming out of halftime after Portland hung around in the first half despite their dynamic back-court struggling to score efficiently.
Damian Lillard, Jerami Grant and Co. erased a seven-point Wolves lead in less than 3:00 of game time. Jaden McDaniels checked out of the game just 52 seconds into the half after picking up his fourth foul, while D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards and Rudy Gobert failed to generate a rhythm on either end of the floor.
After a stagnant offense couldn’t profit, Austin Rivers stepped up and made the first of his frequent third quarter deposits. Gobert tapped out a missed 3 from Russell, who chased down the loose ball, before Gobert made a heady play to spring his fellow 30-year-old vet in the corner.
A minute later, Taurean Prince checked into the game to and immediately made his presence felt. Rivers dimed him up before Prince took it to the rim and scored an acrobatic scoop layup attacking a close-out.
The spark those two provided with ball movement and driving the lane opened up the floor for Edwards to attack, which forced the defense to collapse on him inside. Not only did that open up opposite corner kicks to set the defense into scramble mode, but it also freed up Gobert to attack the offensive glass, which he hit hard from that point on.
While the defense didn’t quite rise to the level the Wolves needed it to, they effectively stopped the bleeding before, treaded water and swapped leads with the Blazers until Prince put a stop to that.
Then, Rivers stole it from Drew Eubanks on the other end and got to the free throw line, where he went 1/2. The beloved vet followed that by locking up Anfernee Simons, and that stop led to a Prince layup. The Target Center crowd erupted with praise of two respected leaders doing the dirty work necessary to build a six-point lead, 87-81.
Minnesota carried an 89-85 lead into the final 12:00 in large part because of Rivers and Prince, who saved the Timberwolves from letting go of the rope and beating themselves in the third quarter.
“I feel like me, TP and Kyle have to be that all season for this team. Like the consistency of just solid play, especially when we got young guys. When it starts getting a little chaotic out there, a little unorganized, like we have to just settle us down on both ends of the floor. It’s just paramount,” Rivers told Canis Hoopus in the locker room postgame. “You know, Kyle tells me that every time I’m on the floor and he’s not, he’s like ‘Yo Aus, you gotta go get the ball and get everybody calm.’ I tell him the same thing. Just guys who know how to play.”
Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch was very pleased.
“I can get [my smart players] all on the floor, yeah. I have no problem putting them all on the floor with Kyle’s playmaking. And I thought Austin was huge tonight. I thought Austin’s defense was outstanding. He was a plus 17 for a reason. He did a great job out there on those guards.”
“It was huge. He had a great offensively game, super efficient. But what I loved was he got 50-50 balls. He just was right in there on 50-50 balls and his quickness was huge for us. Just energy was great,” Finch said about Prince’s return. “He was our most consistent player in a lot of ways – in his role, for sure, when he went out. I knew what I was going to get from him every night, he knows who he is, his game is super well defined and he sticks to his strengths, so definitely pleased to have him back.”
“I feel like I bring a presence that’s infectious. So I guess that’s something that plays to a benefit when I’m able to play,” Prince added, bridging into a question about the key to turning it around this season.
“Continue to do the little things. All the big things we want and strive for are impossible without the little things. Coming in day by day and making sure we’re getting better and knowing what we’re doing and game-plan wise and not giving up rebounds like we have. We’ve got to get better at that shit, but we’ll be all right,” he explained. “As long as we play hard, know what we want to make the defense do and know how we want to play offensively and give ourselves the best chance, that’s all you can ask for.”
The Timberwolves certainly knew what they wanted to do defensively: slow down Lillard.
To accomplish this, Finch had two of McDaniels, Prince and Anderson on the floor to check him, with Gobert holding down the fort in the paint, so that Minnesota could be much more switch heavy. After watching Russell give minimal effort when he got switched onto Blazers center Jusuf Nurkić in the paint, Finch benched his starting point guard for the rest of the night. He opted to roll out a lineup of Edwards, Rivers, Prince, Anderson and Gobert to maximize the team’s defensive flexibility while also utilizing four vets who play very well off of Edwards to bring a clear hierarchy to the offense.
After Lillard drew plenty of fouls in a switch-heavy defense, Finch reverted to the strategy he used in Monday’s win over the Denver Nuggets. Anderson guarded Nurkić while Gobert roamed as a free safety low man on the back line of the defense. When Nurkić would come to set a screen for Lillard, Minnesota showed hard and brought two to the ball to get it out of Lillard’s hands, like this:
“I mean, we have someone down there that we can rely on just to alter shots even when he doesn’t block shots guys going in the paint thinking about him,” Rivers told Canis Hoopus in the locker room. “You see some of the top players how Jaden affects them. He’s a big-time player too for us. So, then you got Kyle’s length and his IQ and then with my perimeter defense and TP, we ended up being pretty damn tough out there on defense, man. We’re pretty good defensive team.”
Simply put, Gobert dominated the paint defensively down the stretch. In the fourth quarter, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year collected five defensive rebounds, blocked two shots, and helped hold the Blazers to shoot just 4/11 (36.4%) in the paint.
Although it’s a small sample size, this defense (similar to last year’s high wall, in a way) maximizes Gobert’s defensive impact with the Wolves better than any other scheme Finch has deployed so far this season. It unlocks Gobert more as a playmaker while also keeping him near the rim to fight on the glass for rebounds. It also helps wings stay attached to the corners, which works to prevent catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Blazers only generated 19 Catch / Shoot 3s (6th lowest game), and only knocked down 5 of them (2nd lowest game)— Cory Jez (@JezData) January 5, 2023
Combined with a 25% TOV% in the 1st half does not an offense make.
Ball movement just wasn't there for POR to generate the open looks they've knocked down all year
But when offenses do get those catch-and-shoot looks, the Wolves wings can x-out with their close-outs, just like they did last year.
“It’s dope because most of the time, like last year, we like, ‘We got to rotate. Low man, X out.’ Now, we just like we just got to X out because we know he’s the low man. He’s got the rim,” Edwards told Canis Hoopus in the locker room. “So, it’s kind of fun to have him out there, for real, especially when he’s playing at his best.”
Combining what Gobert excels at with both Anderson’s ability to defend in space and in the post and what players like McDaniels, Edwards — and eventually, Towns — are familiar with is a fantastic way to create a cohesive defense that can really create problems for dynamic offenses. There is a catch, though.
“Really controlled the paint. It’s great when we get him to a spot where he’s the low man and he’s swallowing up the rim, and he was able to do that tonight,” Finch said postgame. “That can only be done if everyone can go out there and guard and handle their business elsewhere, and those guys did that. Ball pressure was great, switches were good, gaps were great.”
Therein lies why Finch went away from Russell. He didn’t have confidence that Russell could play solid enough on-ball defense to make the scheme work, so he closed with Rivers.
Offensively, the Wolves fully empowered Edwards with the keys to the car in clutch time without Russell on the floor for the second straight game. The results tonight were even better.
Anthony Edwards scored seven straight points in the 4Q and scored or assisted on 15 of the Wolves' final 17 points over the final 5:38.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) January 5, 2023
Minnesota doesn't just have a closer. They have a force of nature capable of destroying defenses whenever he chooses to impose his will. pic.twitter.com/KhIjfoppm9
Edwards scored 13 points over the final 5:38, including a stretch where he scored seven straight points in 2:30 of game time. Overall, he scored or assisted on 15 of the Timberwolves’ final 17 points, capped off with a perfect lob to Gobert.
The best part is that Edwards did it at all three levels, but didn’t settle one bit. He attacked down hill for three key scores at the basket and drew a foul on the drive for free throws, too. He began drawing so much attention in the paint that on his last miss, Gobert was able to secure an offensive rebound and foul out Eubanks at the 2:32 mark, just 1:06 after fouling out his European rival in Nurkić. Gobert finished with 17 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks and two steals in one of his best performances as Wolf.
That’s the impact of Anthony Edwards, the closer.
From the 5:38 mark of the fourth quarter to the final buzzer, Edwards handled the ball on every possession and only three possessions did not include an Edwards shot attempt. Two of them were trips Gobert either attempted a dunk or got fouled.
“He certainly tonight did a great job of taking advantage of a matchup. The thing with him is we just want to be able to use that as a weapon and not do it for 48 minutes, because it’s hard to do that,” Finch explained of his young superstar. “He did an unbelievable job tonight of playing with great force in that last five minutes.”
“I think that this is starting to feel clear here,” Rivers said. “But you just know he’s the guy here. And I mean, there’s no doubt about it. There’s no indecision with that. Ant’s our guy.”
And Edwards is ready to be that guy.
“I’m always ready for the fourth,” he said leaning back in his chair, wearing a wide smile. “When the fourth come, I’m like, ‘Man, it’s showtime now.’ So, I’m getting kind of used to it now.”
Finch’s decision to close with four smart, complementary vets around Edwards made a huge difference for his young playmaker.
“It’s dope because [the vets are] just trying to put me in the best position to do what I do,” Edwards told Canis. “That’s what they was doing. They was like, ‘Nah, come set a screen right here, get the switch and go at him.’ So, that’s pretty much what we’ve been doing.”
He completely took over the game offensively while not having to exert much energy on the other end because his teammates played exceptional defense around him. Edwards certainly played a part in that, but he wasn’t relied upon defensively like he would’ve been if Russell was out there.
“On defense, if they need me, I can go guard the best player. But the majority of the time, we’ve got P, Slow Mo, Austin ready to guard. So, they be like, ‘We got him. Go on offense.’”
Anthony Edwards has scored 23+ points nine times in a row. Before this stretch, his longest streak of his career had been 4 games. The leap is inescapable.— Jake Paynting (@jakepaynting) January 5, 2023
Edwards finished with a game-high 32 points, seven rebounds and three assists in a performance that strengthened the argument to build around him as a lead ball-handler and the clear-cut No. 1 option for the team.
Between the off-court social media stir that Russell caused on Wednesday afternoon, D-Lo’s expiring contract, Finch choosing Rivers over Russell to close, Edwards’ magnificent night, and Russell again leaving the locker room before it opened to the media, the writing appears quite clearly on the wall: his days in Minnesota are numbered.
While many will (incorrectly, in my view) point out Edwards’ ascension without Towns as a reason to trade the three-time All-Star, it actually should make KAT’s return even more seamless. Towns has been looked to as a leader since Jimmy Butler forced his way out of town simply because there wasn’t a better option among key contributors that could assume that leadership role.
Last season, Towns embraced Patrick Beverley’s leadership and fit in very well letting Pat Bev take the reins from a leadership perspective. He grew into arguably the most dominant version of himself after the All-Star break as a result. While he did that, Towns played a key role in empowering Edwards to close games with the ball in his hands down the stretch of the season and into the playoffs. KAT had a lower usage rate than Edwards did in the playoffs and scored 21.8 points on 48.8/45.5/86.0 shooting splits to complement Ant’s 25.2 points on 45.5/40.4/82.4 marks. They complement each other wonderfully.
Furthermore, I can’t imagine there’s anyone in the Timberwolves locker room happier for Anthony Edwards than Karl-Anthony Towns. Since the day Minnesota selected Edwards No. 1 overall in 2020, Towns has been nothing but supportive of Edwards’ ascension into superstardom and only wants to see him succeed, especially if it also brings team success. If team success means Towns follows Edwards’ lead, I fully expect him to do that.
Edwards personality brings the best out of Towns. He’s exactly the type of partner Towns has been toughing out losing season after losing season with a sub-par supporting cast in order to make a run with. While, yes, trading Towns is the best way to recoup assets lost in the Gobert trade, I would argue that there are few players in the NBA that would better take pressure off Edwards’ offensive burden given Towns’ unmatched shooting gravity, playmaking ability, and three-level scoring prowess. Keeping Towns as one of the most overqualified No. 2s in the NBA while a superstar like Edwards is on a rookie contract is a luxury that no other team in the NBA currently enjoys.
The pair led the Wolves to the playoffs (and probably should’ve won a series) last year. Let them do it again, while incorporating a dominant defensive force like Gobert and excellent veterans in Anderson and Rivers into the fold to make a run with existing key players like McDaniels, Prince, McLaughlin and Reid, plus whomever they net in a Russell deal.
There’s no doubting that this is Anthony Edwards’ team. All of his teammates — including Towns — are going to follow him, empower him, and help him take this franchise to places it hasn’t been in nearly two decades.
“We know how to talk to him. We’ll tell him go get the ball or we can even yell at him and he listens. The young dude listens. That’s the most impressive thing about Ant since I’ve been here. Usually a guy like that, it’s hard to talk to sometimes just because they got everything. But he doesn’t act like that. He just continually wants to get better,” Rivers said postgame.
“I think that’s why he’s so likable. ... no one gets mad just because, you know, the kid’s trying to make the right play every time. And he’s super competitive. He wants to take on the world. So we never get frustrated with him,” he continued. “We just try to teach him, talk to him. He’s 21 and learning. He’s like five, six years away from his prime. It sounds crazy, but that’s really the truth. I mean, in six years.. and he’s already this good..man. He’s a franchise player. He’s the real deal.”
took care of business— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) January 5, 2023
Ant - 32 PTS / 7 REB / 3 AST
Rudy - 17 PTS / 12 REB / 1 AST / 2 STL / 3 BLK
Luka - 14 PTS / 2 REB / 1 STL
TP - 11 PTS / 2 REB pic.twitter.com/gBQyaQROfg
The Wolves will close out a four-game homestand on Friday night against the Los Angeles Clippers, who will likely be without Kawhi Leonard on the second night of a back-to-back. LA plays in Denver on Thursday and Leonard is set to play in that game. You can catch the 8 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North.