The Minnesota Timberwolves’ win over the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday night was a crucial one as they battle for positioning in the Western Conference. But getting a clutch win and moving into the No. 7 seed wasn’t even the most important development of the night.
That would, of course, be the return of Karl-Anthony Towns to the lineup. In his first night back on the court after missing 52 games due to a right calf strain, Towns scored 22 points, was a team-best plus-13 and hit the tying and go-ahead free throws in the final seconds of the 125-124 victory.
Ice water in the veins. pic.twitter.com/0ttK9iyqwD— Bally Sports North (@BallySportsNOR) March 23, 2023
After the game, Towns’ glowing smile and energy exemplified how happy he was to be back on the floor.
"Two free throws don't worry about it. I got that."— Bally Sports North (@BallySportsNOR) March 23, 2023
Karl-Anthony Towns reacts following the win over Atlanta! #RaisedByWolves pic.twitter.com/tXhMNRL2FD
As fun as the game was, though, it’s also important to see what can be gleaned from it. This team was constructed with the understanding that Towns would be a centerpiece, but he’s been out the vast majority of the season. Reintegrating him with eight games to secure a shot at the postseason is, obviously, of chief concern.
With that, here are four Towns-centric takeaways from the night:
No major ramp-up period for Towns… and the Wolves probably couldn’t afford one, anyway
Five days ago, Towns posted a tweet comparing his wait to get back onto the court to the restlessness of a caged lion, and he certainly looked like a guy who was antsy to hoop again. He came out with plenty of energy and was very involved in the offense in the first few minutes. Some stray voltage did fly throughout the game, but his impact was much more positive than negative.
It’s not like Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch restrained him much, either. Yes, Towns only played 26 minutes, but he was the focal point of the offense during his minutes. They even ran the final play for him when he got to the free throw line (plus, he took the shot on the previous possession, missing a mid-range jumper).
Towns looked pretty solid physically; there was no sign of gimpiness in that calf, and he didn’t seem gassed at the end of the night. We’ll see if that’s the case as his minutes increase.
It would be fair to expect the Wolves not to thrust KAT into a massive role immediately after so much time away, but Minnesota doesn’t really have that luxury. For one, they’re only a game ahead of the 12th-place Pelicans and 1.5 games behind the fifth-place Clippers; they have to go all-out to the finish line.
In addition, Towns still needs as many reps as possible next to Rudy Gobert (and new running mate Mike Conley). It won’t happen in full before the postseason, but Minnesota’s players and coaches need to have a good feeling for who they are and how they work as a unit.
Same old KAT
Watching Towns on Wednesday was a bit jarring because it was like he never left the lineup. It was as though the Wolves went back in a time machine, plucked him out of the day before he was hurt and dropped him in the starting five.
There were the typical positives of Towns’ game: Some nice moves, a couple 3s, some fun passes and highlights.
But there were also the recurring negatives that have frustrated fans in recent years, the bad decisions and careless screens.
To be fair, no one expects a player to improve when they’ve been sitting out for months without any meaningful action. It’s just that one might expect that guy to play as a more reserved version of themselves upon re-entering the fray. Towns’ return almost seemed to push him to his extremes.
On the topic of those negatives…
Defense, fit with Gobert still a question mark
Towns hasn’t been a plus-defender for a while, and that certainly wasn’t going to change in his first action since November.
Unfortunately, we also got the return of the confusion over defensive approach when KAT and Gobert switch places, a near constant from those early months of the season. This is yet another reason Minnesota needs to build some muscle memory with Towns in the lineup.
Another trouble to keep an eye on is that Gobert had his best moments when Towns was off the floor. In particular, he was most impactful when Finch ran an exquisitely weird and large lineup of Kyle Anderson-Taurean Prince-Jaden McDaniels-Naz Reid-Gobert, which got the Wolves back in the game after they fell behind by eight in the fourth quarter.
Getting Towns and Gobert to work well together will take experimenting, probably more than they have time for now. It will likely be more of a priority for next season, but right now Minnesota is trying to get into the playoffs and alleviate the blow of the first-round pick it owes the Utah Jazz. To play well enough to get there, two of the team’s best top three players need to be more compatible.
But the Wolves have a lot of firepower for the stretch run
That said, wow do the Wolves project to have some offensive punch for a team that had major scoring struggles recently.
The time that KAT was out, along with Anthony Edwards sitting recently, seems to have given Minnesota’s secondary offensive players confidence for making plays.
Watch yo head Jaden!!! #RaisedByWolves pic.twitter.com/NdONeCFv26— Bally Sports North (@BallySportsNOR) March 23, 2023
McDaniels is averaging 21.5 points on 48-52-90 shooting splits the last four games and has set, and then tied, his career-high of 25 points in that span. Reid led the team with 26 points and shot 11-of-15 from the field, in large part next to Towns or Gobert after struggling as a power forward pre-KAT injury. Conley is running the show beautifully, Prince never seems to miss and Anderson is consistently making the right play.
When Edwards returns and he and Towns get up to full speed, there is a frightening amount of offensive ability on this team. Whether they will unlock it enough to make major noise in the postseason remains to be seen, but the capability is all there on this roster.