The basketball gods couldn’t have scripted it any better.
Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns made his return to the lineup on Wednesday night, and after 52 games missed, a setback, and a wild game of runs, the fate of the game came down to whether or not the officials would reverse a call and whistle an offensive foul on Towns.
They didn’t, and with his team down one with 3.6 seconds left, Towns calmly stepped to the free throw line with the chance to give his team the lead. As the first shot swished through the net, an explosive Target Center crowd collectively lost the weight of another excruciating home loss. When the second shot returned the same result, you could’ve heard the euphoric roar from Minneapolis to Mankato, Rochester to Roseville, and everywhere in between.
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“It’s obviously one of the beauties of KAT. You can give him the ball in a lot of places on the floor in high-leverage situations. He’s going to get a clean look, put a lot of pressure to get the foul,” Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch said postgame.
Minnesota got the stop on the other end to seal a 125-124 win over an Atlanta Hawks squad they destroyed last week on the road.
Let’s get into the key takeaways from tonight’s important win:
KAT Being KAT
“Expectations are the he just kind of settles into the flow of the game. Not try to do too much at this point in time,” Finch said pregame about what he expected from his three-time All-Star. “Most importantly, knock the rust off, certainly want him to be himself, but not at the expense of what we’re trying to do out there. I think that’s a pretty easy ask for him.”
Ask and you shall receive.
Those game-winning free throws capped off an excellent return for Towns, who scored 22 points, grabbed four rebounds, dished out three assists and came away with two steals across 26 minutes, in which he registered a team-best +13 mark.
The Wolves struggled to consistently string together stops while KAT was on the floor with Naz Reid (about half of his 26 minutes), but it didn’t matter. Minnesota’s offense with Towns back in the fold hummed better than it has all season long. The ball movement was crisp, spacing was balanced for the most part, players moved freely with and without the ball, and everyone played well off of each other.
The pressure KAT puts on a defense as an elite shooter, dangerous driver and willing passer just by simply walking onto the floor makes everyone around him better and that was on full display tonight.
He was tremendous as an outlet passer that spurred transition opportunities and is another guy Finch can trust to grab the ball off the rim and sprint with it down the court.
It also helps when offense comes as easily as running up the floor, right into a straightaway 3-pointer to make a defense pay for poor discipline and positioning.
Perhaps the best thing to say about Towns’ performance is that everything was seamless offensively.
“He had the hot start. That was great to see. He came out and looked like he was in the rhythm that he’s always loved to play in,” Finch said. Still a few spacing things we gotta work through. I think that can help him take better advantage of some situations out there. I thought he was aggressive. He gives us another dimension of throwing the ball in the post.”
He and Mike Conley looked like they had been playing together all season, prompting KAT to heap praise on his new point guard, whom Towns hadn’t yet gotten a chance to practice or partake in a shootaround with:
“Mike is such a cerebral player. He’s such a high IQ guy as well. What I love about Mike right now is he’s getting aggressive. So when he’s getting aggressive, an aggressive Mike Conley is a dangerous Mike Conley for us because he’s done nothing in his life but be a fantastic player. We just want him to continue being that,” Towns said.
“Don’t want him to make him an all passing guard. He’s got a lot of offensive skill and things we can utilize in winning games. Tonight, when we needed some big shots, I think he took a stepback three, counted as a two, but it was in the heart of the game when the game could’ve went either way. An aggressive Mike Conley is a dangerous Mike Conley.”
Overall, you couldn’t ask for much more from Towns in his return. He made the right read almost every time he caught the ball, limited his mistakes for the most part, took smart shots, and wasn’t picked on defensively. Even better, he played 26 minutes, only nine shy of his customary 35 per night, which means his ramp-up period will be pretty short; he could be back to 100% by the time the Wolves return to Minneapolis for a monster showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers next Friday night.
With KAT back in the fold, the offense flowing in a way that promoted everyone’s strengths, and easy late-game scoring, it was a win that makes you feel like the Wolves can do some damage in the playoffs.
Naz Reid Continues to Dominate the Second Half
It’s hard to find a role player in the entire NBA enjoying more second half success than Reid. The fan favorite delivered 15 of his team-high 26 points in the final 24 minutes, with 13 of them coming in the fourth.
The Timberwolves were staring down the barrel of their sixth consecutive home loss, and third in their last four against a team playing on the second night of a back-to-back, but Reid’s play kept the team afloat. He shared the floor with Towns for the a five-minute stretch overlapping in the third and fourth quarters, and KAT deferred to Naz because the matchups called for it, and he was making plays like this:
“I thought he was good playing against him but I didn’t know his bag, he has such a variety in his bag. He can just do so many different things. He’s like a guard at his position, he’s got great skill around the rim, his touch around the rim is unbelievable,” Conley said about Reid postgame. “It’s a lot that he’s shown me in a little bit of time. I hope he’s here for a long time.”
And when Naz wasn’t sizing up a slower big, he was confidently stepping into shots that helped turn the tide of the game.
It didn’t matter whether he played the 5 or the 4, either; he got after it the same way, regardless of the position — attacking downhill.
“Yeah I think I’ve built enough confidence and my teammates have built enough confidence in me to believe that I can go out there and do those things no matter who’s on the floor,” Reid said. “Whether it’s those guys or guards, whoever it may be, just to go out there and produce whichever way I can.”
“Naz was spectacular. He really was. He played offensively like he didn’t try to change how he played. I think that was key. Defensively he was really good. He got his hands on a bunch of stuff. He guarded well. He’s one been one of our better players all year. We gotta find a way to make the two-big lineup work,” Finch said. “We have the flexibility to go a lot of different directions. But when a guy’s playing this well, he deserves to be out there in some form or fashion. It’s my job to figure it out.”
Towns added onto that by publicly calling for Reid to be part of the team’s core rotation moving forward.
“Like Finch said, I agree 100%, Naz Reid has to find minutes in our rotation. He’s playing too well, too consistent to not be in the rotation and he deserves the minutes,” KAT said. “We got to find him some minutes because he’s going to be super valuable in the playoffs when we need him the most.”
KAT freely admitted that Reid is a major luxury when one of himself or Rudy Gobert get in foul trouble, which is another important element to keep in mind. But there’s a difference between being a situational luxury and a force consistently relied upon in the regular rotation.
Tonight, Reid stamped his claim for why he should be in the rotation — even with the two-big construct. Now it’s on Finch to make sure it continues.
Jaden McDaniels and Taurean Prince, the Connectors
The Timberwolves wouldn’t have sniffed a win tonight without the excellent contributions from their two-way, 3-and-D wing duo, Jaden McDaniels and Taurean Prince.
McDaniels pitched in 25 points on 9/17 shooting (53%) — his seventh straight game of at least 14 points (and seventh in his last 10 games of 18+) — to go with six boards and four dimes, while Prince provided 15 points and three assists.
“It’s huge. He’s carried us through this stretch here. He’s playing at a high level. Anthony [Edwards] just said to him in the locker room, it’s important that those guys, him and Naz, keep playing this way. We can’t just start to defer. He still has got to stay aggressive. We can’t allow people to hide on anybody right now,” Finch said about McDaniels’ 25-point night. “I think Jaden’s been spectacular, just like Naz has been. So yeah, I think once these guys experience this type of usage and ability and they show it to themselves and others, it’s hard for them to just got back and stand in the corner. And we don’t want that either.”
Beyond their scoring, McDaniels and Prince have a truly impressive understanding of how to excel as secondary and tertiary options across basically any type of lineup Finch puts out on the floor. On a team headlined by stars, players of that mold are absolutely vital to a team sinking or swimming in the playoffs when opposing coaches do everything in their power to limit stars’ impact.
“Yeah, that’s a great observation. Those guys are flexible. We actually debated about whether we would start Kyle or start TP, just because of his shooting next to the bigs,” Finch told Canis Hoopus about the connectivity the pair bring. “The more versatility we have, and I think actually as we grow there’s not many guys that I don’t feel like can’t play with each other right now. Now, there’s obviously optimal lineups, but we haven’t figured that out in our new construct.”
Plays like this are a perfect example. In a one-point game in the fourth quarter, Prince is a guy that will realize he has the worst defender in the NBA on him, attack off the catch, and make a perfect delivery to Gobert in the dunker spot for an easy deuce to extend the lead.
It seems small, but it was a huge bucket that helped give the Wolves a more sound control of the game. This is the type of mismatch hunting that Finch will ask of Prince and McDaniels in a playoff series.
“We know what he does defensively, but offensively he can really open up the court for a lot of guys, especially with the crew around him, whoever’s out there with him. He has lanes to drive, he has lanes to take a couple of dribbles, spin and then finish over smaller people,” Conley told Canis Hoopus in the locker room.
“He has to take advantage of it because when the playoffs get here, it’s gonna be matchups where they’re gonna try to put people in different places and he’s gonna be a guy that’s got to be taken advantage of.
“TP, the same way, his ability to kind of blend in with the lineups and play with the bigger lineups, play with the smaller lineups, handle the ball a little bit. We just need him to stay aggressive as well and we’ll have a good balance there.”
In the spirit of diving deeper into KAT’s return to the team, I kept a little log of the Wolves’ rotation tonight. Keep in mind that Anthony Edwards (right ankle sprain) and Jordan McLaughlin (illness) did not play, but will absolutely be part of the team’s rotation moving forward.
If you’d prefer to view it in spreadsheet form, please click here.
Here are the standout pieces from it:
- KAT split his minutes pretty evenly between the 4 alongside Rudy and the 5 with Naz beside him. This ended up being a wonderful decision from Finchy. KAT/Naz minutes were fantastic offensively, while the KAT/Rudy pairing obviously shored up the defensive shortcomings and was insulated by Conley, Anderson and McDaniels there to play off of them.
- Slow-Mo is everywhere. He played three positions, guarded guards, wings and bigs, and is able to play with anyone on the roster because of his defensive versatility, playmaking, and ability to get into the paint to score.
- Conley played more with Towns than he did with Rudy. That’s in part due to McLaughlin’s injury, but also speaks to the Wolves not needing to rely on Conley to make Gobert fit. Whenever Conley wasn’t playing with Gobert, two players with good Rudy connections — McDaniels and Anderson — were.
- 13 straight minutes of Naz Reid domination in the third/fourth quarters. Talk about letting it ride. Finch said he put Conley and Towns back in the game with a little more than a minute left because Atlanta was gassed and wanted fresh bodies in there to take it to the Hawks’ defense. I’d imagine that was a tough decision for him, given Naz scored 15 points in that stretch and was pivotal in stealing a win.
- Lineups were HUGE tonight. Outside of Conley, the starting five was all 6-foot-9 or taller.
The Wolves will have three days off before hitting the road for their final West Coast road trip of the season, which kicks off Sunday in San Francisco as the hopefully full strength No. 7 seed Timberwolves take on Stephen Curry and the No. 6 seed Golden State Warriors. You can catch the 7:30 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North or NBA TV.