The Minnesota Timberwolves came into Wednesday’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans fresh off one of their best regular season wins in recent memory, making it a classic ‘let down’ spot. And that’s before the Pelicans announced that they would be missing six rotation players — including Zion Williamson, who is set to welcome the birth of his first child.
Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch spoke pregame about how New Orleans has plenty of experience without their superstar and stressed that his team needed to bring the same maturity they’ve brought on this three-game home winning streak.
new hardwood tonight. pic.twitter.com/qGF6oTOT9E— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 8, 2023
Minnesota brought that early, no doubt helped by both 1) vibes of unveiling an incredible matching City Edition jersey and court, and 2) playing through Karl-Anthony Towns and helping the big man establish a rhythm. After picking up an offensive foul on a face-up drive out of a post-up on the first possession, Towns settled in by making each of his first two 3-pointers. That sparked a 14-2 Timberwolves avalanche as a result of the team scoring on five straight possessions, which also included triples from Mike Conley and Anthony Edwards, who also added a tough lefty layup. KAT went up on to score 10 in the first quarter on 4/5 shooting.
New Orleans cut into the once 17-8 lead with some tough buckets from Brandon Ingram, who used his seemingly endless to create crazy scoring angles that he finished off with a feathery soft touch. Old friend Matt Ryan added a 3-pointer to help the cause, too. A pair of Naz Reid scores helped the Wolves maintain a lead, while backup point guard Shake Milton got into the mix with a nice and-1 finish inside to expand the advantage from one to four, which is where things landed after one quarter, 28-24.
Milton getting involved was important for the Wolves, especially in the wake of fellow backup guard Jordan McLaughlin suffering a knee injury on Monday that J-Mac will have re-evaluated in one month. Finch said pregame that Milton playing a season low 2:41 of action on Monday wasn’t performance related, but rather that he liked McLaughlin’s speed as a way to collapse a switching Boston Celtics defense.
The team continued a concerted effort to involve Milton in the second quarter, as he drained a 3-pointer early in the frame that breathed a confidence into his play that remained throughout the game.
“Shake played really aggressive. Things that we knew it was coming. Hopefully now we got to keep doing it,” Finch said postgame. “One thing we’re learning is Shake is probably a little better off the ball and getting him involved in stuff off the ball where he can really trigger his aggressiveness.”
That is exactly what happened on Wednesday, with Kyle Anderson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker handling most of the bench on-ball reps. The pair combined for 13 assists to four turnovers, in what was a great night for Wolves guards.
“Nickeil has been really good at running our stuff out there in a different way than Mike does it and a different way than Kyle does. So I like that, we have three different guards that all lean into different parts of our offense,” Finch added.
From there, Conley continued his shooting heater with a pair of 3-pointers that blew the game wide open as part of an 18-4 run from 10:23 of the period to 6:06. The five-man unit of Conley, Edwards, Kyle Anderson, Reid and Rudy Gobert played phenomenal defense and got out in transition for some buckets that fired up a very loud and energetic Target Center crowd that received Crunch Howlers before the game. That run was capped off by an emphatic Gobert one-handed throw down off a lob from Edwards.
BIG MAN ONE-HANDED SLAM pic.twitter.com/ePDZcgwfRU— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 9, 2023
It was one of eight first half assists (a career-high for most in a half) for Edwards, who did an excellent job of manipulating the defense in the pick-and-roll, spraying the ball to the corners and creating wide open 3-point looks. Six of his eight dimes created open triples — a wildly encouraging development considering the pressure he’s able to apply on a defense with his handle, explosiveness, and scoring arsenal. But if he is beginning to unlock an ability to manipulate the defense with his basketball mind and his vision, look out.
This is what the next level of playmaking looks like for Ant.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) November 9, 2023
Also a great example of the value KAT can add in the cornerpic.twitter.com/zhAbdJ77Y2
“For sure, I think he’s way more aware like when he sees certain defenses and what that defense is going to give him,” Finch said in response to a question about whether or not he sees Ant’s vision expanding. “That’s just part of the maturity of playing against enough of different types of defenses and trusting your teammates to make the pass.”
The Timberwolves basically got whatever they wanted offensively, largely as a result of their unselfish play in the half-court. Everything clicked, pretty much regardless of the lineup combinations out there. Gobert played above the rim for dunks and put-backs as well as making good short roll passes, the guards got to the baseline to create corner kick-outs, everyone shared the ball, Edwards stopped himself from taking ill-advised shots and instead moved it to create better ones, and most importantly, shooters made shots.
As a result, the Wolves hung 44 points on the Pelicans in the second quarter en route to a 72-point half in which they shot 61% from the floor, 14/27 from deep (51.9%), and made only four free throws. Regardless of the strength of opponent, it was a “leave no doubt” performance that showed what this offense is capable of when they play off of stops, share the ball, and make the open shots they generate.
Wolves are finding an insanely efficient shot diet— Jared Martinson (@JaredMartyMN) November 9, 2023
6/11 on corner 3s
12/15 from 0-14 feet
8/16 on above the break 3s
just 1/2 on 15+ feet 2s
That's a 144 offensive rating https://t.co/PAGnQMptLU
Simply put, this one was over at halftime with the score 72-44 after 24 minutes. But that didn’t mean the Wolves stopped playing. They poured it on and ballooned the lead out to 31, 82-51, before Minnesota went showtime.
Reid came away with a rebound, hit the circle button (s/o to my PlayStation players) before throwing it ahead to Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who became a legend for throwing the lob that broke the Pelicans spirit.
The home crowd went absolutely bananas in uproarious disbelief at what they had just seen, so Edwards made sure to give them another incredible highlight for good measure before Finch called a timeout to take the starters out of the game in the fourth quarter.
ABSOLUTELY SENSATIONAL pic.twitter.com/g0hlsZXD09— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 9, 2023
Edwards finished his night with a team-high 26 points on 10/22 shooting, eight assists, two blocks and two steals in just 33 minutes of action, while Towns fouled out with an efficient final scoring mark of 23 points on 9/12 shooting.
The end of the bench got it to the finish line with a final score of 122-101.
This story will continue to be updated throughout the night after coach and player media availability.
Rudy Gobert Delivers Another Big Performance
There is no bigger difference between the 2022-23 Timberwolves and 2023-24 squad than the version of Rudy Gobert we’ve seen through seven games. He is noticeably healthier, quicker and lighter on his feet, and Finch explained postgame what that has unlocked for the Wolves defense:
“He’s doing everything. Offensively and defensively, he’s creating a ton of great offense for us, just with his spacing, his screening and his rolling,” Finch said. “It’s back to back plus-24s when he’s out there.”
Gobert delivered 17 points, 21 rebounds and two blocks mostly in the background, which speaks to how elite of a role player he has been; we just come to expect this level of play from him now. His activity generated get several run-outs in transition that ended in either highlights, scores, or both. For Gobert, everything starts on the defensive end of the floor, because it’s the one side he and his teammates can always control.
#1 DRTG & #1 Opp eFG% for a reason.— Alan Horton (@WolvesRadio) November 9, 2023
MIN, Last 4 Opp FG% & 3PT%
NOP -- 38.7% & 28.6%
BOS -- 39.1% & 28.2%
UTA -- 38.5% & 27.9%
DEN -- 39.6% & 18.2%
4 games row < 40% FG & < 30% 3PT is longest streak in franchise history.
And hasn't been done by any NBA team in 9 years.
“We’re hungry. We know it’s early in the season, but we’ve been setting the tone. I really like the foundation that we’re putting together right now and we started [to build] since day one of training camp,” Gobert said postgame. “Regardless of who we play, whether whatever happens, we’re going to come in and play defense. And we’re going to hold each other accountable for that. It was a great test and I’m really proud of the way we’ve responded.”
The four-time All-NBA selection has been at the center of the foundation that these responses have been built off of.
“It’s fun. You’re really able to press up on the defensive end, just knowing that he has your back and being able to trust him. And then, he’s always giving me words of encouragement, telling me to be aggressive,” Milton said of his experience playing with Gobert this season. “We’re always talking and communicating about how we can make different pick and rolls if I’m coming off a down screen, just the looks that are open. And he’s playing dominant right now. ... that’s exactly what we need from him.”
Minnesota would’ve registered their fifth game in seven outings holding an opponent under 100 if it wasn’t for a garbage time 3-pointer from New Orleans guard Dereon Seabron. Keep in mind that the Wolves held an opponent under 100 points just four times all of last season, including the Play-In Tournament and Playoffs. Despite what we saw last season, Gobert is making it pretty clear that when he’s healthy, there’s no one who impacts the game on the defensive end more than him, and he’s got three Defensive Player of the Year trophies to show for it.
A Better Shot Mix
Some of the Timberwolves’ early season struggles on offense can be explained by the types of shots they take. As I explained in my recent 4 Positives, 4 Negatives column, Minnesota is taking mid-range shots at the second-highest rate in the league (27.9%, per Cleaning the Glass) and are 19th in the league in at-rim frequency (31.9%). While yes, the Wolves are making 46.8% of their mid-range shots (fourth-best in the NBA), they’d be better served trying to work in more 3-pointers considering Minnesota is shooting 37.3% from deep (ninth) despite Towns shooting 23.5% from deep entering Wednesday. When Towns’ numbers progress to closer to his 39.2% career mark, the Timberwolves can be a top-five shooting team from beyond the arc.
While this win was a bit of an overcorrection in terms of how many 3s the Wolves took, it was a good example of what happens when they are able to collapse the defense and spray the ball to the corners, where Minnesota is shooting 48.8%, first in the NBA.
“I thought we really did a good job of making the early pass to the open shooter. We generated a lot of looks,” Finch said of the team shooting 27 first half 3-pointers (61.3% of their total field goal attempts). “We kind of had a feeling where we knew where they were going to come from. Sometimes you fight the game, but we didn’t, we took what the game gave us, and it opened up a lot of space in general.”
How much that shot mix changes throughout the season will be a subplot to follow. While Edwards is good in the mid-range, he’s more accurate and efficient from beyond the arc, as is Towns. Anderson, McDaniels, Milton and Conley are all capable of creating in that area, too, but those shots need to be good mid-range shots.
There’s nothing wrong with a good, in-rhythm mid-range shot. But a bad mid-range shot is worse than a bad shot at the rim (better chance of a foul/put-back) or a bad 3-pointer (worth an extra point and easier to offensive rebound), and the Timberwolves offense has really sputtered so far when we see too many bad 2s. The Wolves have shot 53% or better from the mid-range in all five of their wins and shot 28.3% and 38.5%, respectively, in their two losses. Keep an eye on that.
The now 5-2 Timberwolves will head down to the Alamo City for their first matchup with Victor Wembanyama and the 3-5 San Antonio Spurs, which will also be the team’s opening game of the 2023 In-Season Tournament. We’ll have more on Thursday about what the In-Season Tournament is, how it works, and the Wolves’ schedule in it. Fans can watch the 7 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North.