The last time the Minnesota Timberwolves got off to a 10-game start as hot as this season’s 8-2 sprint out of the gates, I was still taking naps at school.
They have come a long way, through the faux optimism maze of Ryan Gomeses, Luke Ridnours, Andre Millers and Treveon Grahams, all to find themselves sitting at 8-2 on the young season and increasingly nestled within the huddle of early picks to make a deep NBA playoff run.
So it only feels right — in an attempt to extinguish the inevitable wisps of doubt that will eventually sneak up on the aforementioned optimism — that we double down on the positives of the first 10 contests and recap how the Timberwolves got here, game-by-game.
Game #1 - Toronto Raptors - 97-94 Loss
The season opener against Toronto left much to be desired from the Timberwolves in most facets. The offense struggled in particular, with Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards combining to shoot 16-for-52 from the field. So what can those guys do when the shot isn’t falling and their gravity still gains great attention from defenses?
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The Raptors are a pretty undersized team. After Jakob Poeltl, they don’t have the height nor defensive skill to contend with someone like Karl-Anthony Towns.
Towns often searches for a matchup switch and sets up at the top of the key. His driving ability has been hampered by off-arm offensive fouls so far, but the defense always loads up to him off the ball.
In this clip, the floor is spread well with KAT at center. He gets Siakam matched up at the nail. All eyes go to Towns, and it cues America’s point guard Mike Conley to 45-cut behind Dennis Schröder’s head for a wide open bucket.
When KAT is having trouble producing points on his own, as he did for the first few games, taking advantage of his playmaking is a must. He’s a very good passer while on balance and the Wolves have willing and able cutters in Conley, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid. It matters doubly against smaller teams that Towns gains mismatches on at center.
Game #2 - Miami Heat - 106-90 Win
Even without McDaniels in the first two games, the Wolves defense was on another level individually and cooperatively. Alexander-Walker and Rudy Gobert proved a strong pairing against a depleted Miami team that only had Tyler Herro to rely on for perimeter offense.
NAW gets up for big individual matchups on defense. He was a clear negative on offense in the first handful of games but had that starting spot locked down until McDaniels returned because of plays like this.
Nickeil gets in Herro’s chest immediately, knowing that he’s probably going to be chasing the shooter off of screens and dribble handoffs most possessions. He does a solid job of navigating past Bam Adebayo and eventually reconnecting to Herro’s hip.
Then the most important part: funneling drives toward Gobert. When Herro snakes the handoff into the lane, Gobert is there to provide deterrence. But NAW’s ability to recover and keep Herro on one side of the lane makes Gobert’s job easier — he can worry about the rim and NAW is back in the play limiting Herro’s path out of the lane.
Game #3 - Atlanta Hawks - 127-113 Loss
Everything was working for Minnesota in the first half against the Hawks, absolutely picking apart Atlanta’s drop coverage in pick-and-roll. Gobert and Mike Conley spammed the action and took advantage in multiple ways. Things were different in half two due to adjustments from Atlanta, along with Conley’s food poisoning getting the better of him, but if anyone continues to play drop against the Wolves, Conley and Kyle Anderson are going to take advantage.
Placing SlowMo in the middle of the floor almost always leads to good things. This ball screen is one way to optimize him.
Kyle isn’t a shooter (2-for-10 on the season), so Dejounte Murray is cool with giving him a cushion on the perimeter. But that comes with a cost as SlowMo is an excellent prober in the middle of the court, where he uses a Gobert ball screen.
Ever since Rudy came into the Timberwolves picture, Kyle has been one of the few teammates to embrace involving him in the offense. It seems the whole team is buying into it this season, but on a much more nuanced level: no more forcing in post-up touches to the Frenchman. Throw him alley-oops over everyone’s head instead!
Good things happen when Anderson is the playmaker and that’s why Chris Finch runs a lot of plays for him to get that elbow catch.
This touch is within the flow of the offense, and Anderson uses that tight-window screen from Gobert to find him up high for the lob finish.
Game #4 - Denver Nuggets - 110-89 Win
I don’t find it coincidental that once the Timberwolves swapped D’Angelo Russell for Conley, their set plays got more fun and effective as they involved more players.
The Nuggets will switch screens defensively and running the flex action in the clip above can mess with some of the initial defensive matchups. Conley screens for Edwards and then gets one from Gobert coming up the lane line. Ultimately they set the defense again, but Michael Porter Jr. is playing too far in the gap on Jaden McDaniels.
This is where Jaden shines, and where he was missed in the first couple contests — attacking space from the perimeter and finding his midrange shot groove. A quick spin move after the full-speed “stampede” cut gets him the footwork necessary to drain the 15-footer.
It’s become abundantly clear that when McDaniels is scoring as a secondary or tertiary option, good things are happening for the Wolves offense. We’ll see more of that in clips from later games coming up.
Game #5 - Utah Jazz - 123-95 Win
I’d say this is the best collective team defensive possession of the season for Minnesota. It has everything you’d want from all five guys in it, start to finish.
Let’s go through every Timberwolf’s impact on this play:
Mike Conley - Anticipates the first screen for Lauri Markkanen, bumps him off path so Kyle Anderson can recover; stunts off of Keyonte George in the corner to deter Markkanen’s drive; recovers back to George in a controlled closeout on the kickout pass
Kyle Anderson - Navigates a down screen and a dribble handoff screen against one of the best scorers in the NBA (Markkanen) to force him into giving up the ball and never getting it back
Anthony Edwards - Runs Ochai Agbaji off the three-point line and funnels him to Gobert in the paint; gets a body on Agbaji to give Gobert space for the defensive rebound
Shake Milton - Stays aware on the backside of the play, occasionally tagging a cutter in the lane; runs Talen Horton-Tucker off the three-point line and forces a late-clock floater
Rudy Gobert - Patrols the paint in drop coverage against the dribble handoff while keeping tabs on Walker Kessler; walls up Kessler underneath the basket and forces a kickout pass late in the shot clock; clears the defensive rebound strongly
Game #6 - Boston Celtics - 114-109 Win (OT)
Against one of the two best teams in the NBA, and one of the best few defensive teams at that, Edwards displayed incredible late-game playmaking to help the Timberwolves defeat the Boston Celtics on the road in overtime. But the most important play he made happened in the second quarter, a run-of-the-mill transition assist to the naked eye.
McDaniels was shooting 1-for-9 from the field at this point against Boston. The Celtics were giving him plenty of space to shoot, willing to lose to his jumper, and it wasn’t falling.
Then Edwards showed off his best traits: busting in transition after a defensive rebound and barreling toward the basket, attracting multiple defenders and then being unselfish to pass off to a teammate that needs confidence in his shot.
The corner pocket three-pointer falls and from that point on, Jaden shot 6-for-8 from the field, including the dagger midrange jumper in overtime over Kristaps Porziņģis.
Game #7 - New Orleans Pelicans - 122-101 Win
Even though Reid has become a full-time power forward, he still plays with all the positive tendencies of a small-ball center. The most impactful thing he did then and still does now is swinging the basketball side to side to trigger ball movement.
Out of the double drag action for Conley, Naz pops behind Rudy’s roll and immediately swings it to Shake Milton to go set a screen. But Milton quickly rips baseline to force help defense and get the Pelicans in rotation; the drift pass to Anderson is open and he swings it once more back to Conley for a wide-open three.
The ball never sticks when Naz is involved — add that trait to his hot outside shooting and deft footwork in the paint and he’s an automatic catalyst of halfcourt offense for Minnesota.
Game #8 - San Antonio Spurs - 117-110 Win
Edwards continuing to open up and explore his ability to manipulate pick-and-roll will provide exponentially more opportunities to score and facilitate than his isolation possessions. The Wolves put up 0.98 points on every possession that includes Ant as the pick-and-roll ballhandler — that’s good for 71st percentile in the NBA, per Synergy.
He attacks Victor Wembanyama this time down, who is in a drop coverage. Wemby’s insane length limits lob opportunities, so Ant has to get creative; how can he hold the 7-foot-4 rookie’s attention and wingspan in check to find Gobert rolling to the front of the rim wide open?
Edwards’ slight hesitation off the bounce keeps Wemby tighter to the ball than he’d probably prefer. As soon as Victor takes a full step closer to the ball, Ant whips a jump pass through the gap on the money for Gobert to dunk it home. The patience displayed here is an indicator of maturity. Edwards is playing the game smartly, not just naturally.
Game #9 - Golden State Warriors - 116-110 Win
It’s time to really talk about Towns’ defensive progression. No longer can he be described as a tweener, impossible to be deciphered as a high-wall or drop coverage center that commits silly fouls down low. Towns has been balling on defense this season, plain and simple: the Wolves have a 97.06 defensive rating in 114 minutes of KAT playing the 5, per PBP Stats.
He makes an incredibly disciplined play in transition here against Golden State, stuffing Klay Thompson on a drive.
Towns gets back in the play after a bad above-the-break Edwards turnover. He times his jump perfectly against Thompson, keeping verticality and not swinging down, to force a jump ball. No frills from Karl, just doing what’s required to win — or delay the opponent from winning — the possession.
Game #10 - Golden State Warriors - 104-101 Win
It’s tough to even come up with a takeaway from “The Fight Game” that occurred most recently between Minnesota and Golden State. But I did say in the Canis Slack channel with about nine minutes to go in the game that it would be Anderson, Conley and Towns who win it for the Wolves. I was fortunate to be right, exactly in that order.
Towns carried the load offensively in raw numbers, which was refreshing on a down Edwards night. But the two best veteran acquisitions in Timberwolves history (I did not prior research to back that statement but I feel good about it) were the key to winning the game.
Anderson gets an offensive rebound by the skin of his teeth under the basket and finds Conley on the wing as the Warriors have to recover. But the 36-year-old point guard knows who to get the ball to: the guy who had already hit four bombs and scored 30 points. KAT fires his best shot, a top-of-the-key triple, to take the lead for good in a game that would have been engraved as an all-time disappointing franchise loss.
Never underestimate the importance of Anderson and Conley.
Check back periodically throughout the season for more analysis of the Timberwolves on both ends of the court!