As the sun set over the Bay Area on Monday night, the Sacramento Kings stepped onto their home floor with a chance to clinch both a playoff spot and home-court advantage for the first round, and exorcise playoff demons that have owned them for 16 years. Instead, the Minnesota Timberwolves played spoiler, and earned a crucial 119-115 victory to assume the Western Conference’s No. 6 seed after holding a séance to deal with haunting spirits of their own.
Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch served as a medium between his team’s late-game offense, aftereffects of D’Angelo Russell waxing and waning, as well as the lingering presence of ghosts of Memphis past, and conjured up a closing time blueprint that Minnesota executed to perfection en route to a fourth straight win.
Entering the game, Minnesota owned the league’s fifth-worst offense in the clutch, yet were tied with the Dallas Mavericks for the third-most wins in the clutch (25) and held a winning percentage of 58.1% in games that get to clutch time (score within five points with 5:00 or less remaining in fourth quarter), seventh in the league behind a group (mostly) of playoff teams soon to lock up home-court in the first round. Needless to say, their sixth-ranked winning time defense (103.9) wasn’t the issue, and their 16th-ranked net rating didn’t match the record as a result.
The Wolves’ late-game performance has been more in line with their fans’ “no, no, yes!” mentality and collective palpable angst when the quarter clock turns from “third” to “fourth,” despite the team’s clutch record. That is because 1) as fans, we’re all still scarred from the debacle that was the 2022 Playoffs, and 2) many games only reached clutch status because Minnesota couldn’t hold leads greater than five points as games progressed. It’s a stark contrast to the Milwaukee Bucks or Denver Nuggets, who are comfortable slowing things down late in games and dragging opponents to grapple on the mat, where they know they have an advantage.
Watching Minnesota’s fourth quarter offense in Sunday’s win over the Golden State Warriors felt more like the year-long experience we’ve all grown older and more anxious from. But on Monday, it truly felt like the Timberwolves ascended from a pretender hanging on for dear life to the finish line into a contender dictating the terms of a fight they believed they could win. And better yet, they did so against Sacramento, the NBA’s fourth-ranked clutch time team by net rating (+11.6) and win percentage (61.0%), headed by the league’s top clutch player in De’Aaron Fox.
Here’s how they did it.
If you’d like to see most of the Timberwolves’ offensive clips all in one place as a refresher, click the five-minute video below.
(Editor’s note: if you are reading on Apple News, please click here to view embedded videos and for the best overall reading experience.)
A Clear Ball-Handling Hierarchy... and Partners to Match
There is no questioning the boundaries of the love the Timberwolves fan base shares for Anthony Edwards. He is unquestionably the present and future of the franchise, the team’s most dynamic offensive threat, and a home run hitter in every sense of the term.
But in games where Finch didn’t trust Russell to run the show and placed the ball in Edwards’ hands, the offense had a tendency to get sticky. It lacked the requisite ball and player movement that forces a defense to earn its stops and, as a result, had a success curve molded to fit the level of the opponent’s defense, rather than the Wolves’ offense.
Finch did away with that on Monday. He made sure that one of Jordan McLaughlin, Kyle Anderson or Mike Conley was on the floor for all 12 minutes of the final frame, running set offense or calling things he knows each player is comfortable initiating.
McLaughlin initiated the first nine possessions, including two transition run-outs after securing stops — a McLaughlin staple. While J-Mac ran things, Finch worked to activate the steady hand’s former Iowa Wolves running mates Jaylen Nowell and Naz Reid in hand-offs and pick-and-roll (PnR), respectively. The Wolves scored or drew a foul on six of those nine trips, and McLaughlin recorded four assists to zero turnovers in just 3:55 of play.
One thing you’ll notice in the McLaughlin minutes is that Finch laid the foundation for what comes later: empty side PnR with Rudy Gobert. The Timberwolves made a point to engage the Kings’ bigs, first Alex Len and later Domantas Sabonis, and force them to defend quick guards in space.
In this play, the Wolves clear out, or “empty,” side of the court J-Mac and Gobert run PnR on to better isolate Len and Fox. They successfully defend the primary PnR portion of the play, but McLaughlin uses his quickness to dart down the baseline, draw in defenders, and open up a passing angle for Reid to do the rest.
Slow-Mo took over the handling duties for about a minute after McLaughlin exited at the 8:05 mark of the fourth. Once Conley entered with 7:05 to play, he took the playmaking reins from there and initiated seven of the team’s final 14 possessions, interspersed with reps from Anderson and Edwards.
Can you guess what Finch decided to do? He went right back to the empty side PnR with arguably the league’s most profitable two-man game duo.
Conley and Gobert ran it four straight times because the Kings couldn’t stop it. Conley, Jaden McDaniels and Edwards all scored off those plays, because the Timberwolves did an excellent job of diversifying their attack out of the primary action. This is why Finch worships at the altar of “randomness.” Sure, a defense can prep for side PnR, but when you add unscripted baseline drives, cuts, and off-ball movement into the equation, it is quite literally impossible to account for.
The Kings then did what any hapless defense tries to do — opt for a zone. While that likely would’ve stumped the Wolves earlier in the season, that’s not the case with a veteran like Conley at the controls. Instead of panicking, he calmly communicates with Anderson to disrupt the structure of the Kings’ zone, and then flows into it with Gobert.
Sacramento defended the initial action a bit better off-ball because of the zone setup, but the Wolves remained patient, made quick decisions, and ended up getting a wider than wide open 3-pointer with the nearest defender seven feet away from Conley. It didn’t fall, but the process there was perfect.
Mike Brown even tried putting two on Gobert to get the Timberwolves to do something else, but Minnesota plays off of it nicely. Slow-Mo cuts through the lane to balance the defense, then resets the PnR flow. Conley, as he, McLaughlin and McDaniels did all quarter, gets to the baseline to find a corner creator. Slow-Mo spaces perfectly to open a passing lane not just for Slim to hit him, but also for Anderson to fire a rocket into a sealing Gobert for an easy two on Sabonis (who had five fouls).
To keep Sacramento off balance, Finch gave Edwards his first real possession to handle it in between the two zone trips above. Instead of ball-hogging and forcing up a bad shot, Ant patiently forces a switch with Conley, then draws the defense’s attention to the corner. This pushes Gobert into the dunker spot, from where he flows to the rim. As a result, it forces Keegan Murray to cheat in, creating up an opportunity to throw a perfect skip pass, after which McDaniels does the rest.
Edwards initiated three of the team’s roughly 20 fourth quarter trips, but primarily did so as an off-speed pitch to keep the defense honest. The great thing about Ant is that he’s totally cool with it. He remained engaged off-ball when he didn’t have it — most times in the slot, so not in the corner — and was perfectly happy to see his teammates take the creation burden off of his shoulders.
That attitude enables Finch to do whatever the matchups calls for at the end of games. If it’s isolating Ant on a smaller, poorer defender, he’ll do it. If it’s setting up a horns look with Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns to put slow defenders in screen actions, he’ll do that, too. Or, like Monday, if you want to make a bad off-ball defense work, you can PnR them to death.
Bottom line, none of that works if Edwards and Towns don’t trust their coach or don’t trust their teammates. But because they do, results like the win over Sacramento can become a regularity given the depth and talent of the team’s personnel, and the sure-handedness of its two point guards.
A Very Balanced Attack
The final creation tally looks something like this (hand-counted, so be nice):
- McLaughlin: 9 possessions | 6 scored/fouled | 2 misses | 1 turnover
- Conley: 7 possessions | 5 scores | 2 misses
- Edwards: 3 possessions | 1 scored | 1 foul | 1 miss
- Anderson: 3 possessions | 0 scored | 2 missed | 1 turnover
McDaniels also got a couple of secondary reps mixed in and drew a foul.
As a result of this distribution, the Timberwolves had one of, if not their most balanced scoring fourth quarter of the entire season. Everyone ate, truly, in every sense of the phrase.
- Jaden: 7 points on 2-4 FG, 3-4 FT
- Nowell: 6 points on 3-5 FG
- Rudy: 6 points on 1-2 FG, 4-6 FT, 3 assists
- Naz: 5 points on 2-3 FG
- Conley: 5 points on 2-3 FG, 1-2 FT, 1 assist
- Edwards: 4 points on 1-3 FG, 1-2 FT
- J-Mac: 4 assists, 0 turnovers in 3:55
- Anderson: 0 points on 0/1 FG, 2 assists
Minnesota scored 33 points on 9/16 from 2 (56.3%), 2/5 from 3 (40%), dished out 10 dimes on 11 made baskets, got to the free throw line 14 times, corralled four offensive rebounds and turned it over just three times.
Prettay, prettay, prettay good.
Some will claim that Towns’ absence enabled this, but the reality is that Finch can still run all this stuff with KAT out there. What the team could lose in McDaniels’ corner creation, they add in Towns’ superior passing and shooting abilities; not to mention that the big fella is — at full strength — arguably the best big man driver in the NBA outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo. He also has the hi-low passing ability to weaponize Gobert and other cutters like Anderson can.
And the best part about the Wolves’ personnel is that they can mix and match the offensive pieces to coordinate a plan of attack that also fits what defenders need to stay on the floor in order to get stops, too. That is what makes the Timberwolves such a dangerous wildcard in the Western Conference playoff mix now back at full strength. They are multiple on both ends, have a very tactically smart coach with a pair of ego-less, unselfish stars, and a wealth of playoff experience between Conley, Gobert and Anderson.
Now, it’s time to see just how high they can fly.