clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Play-In Game Preview: Wolves vs Thunder

Minnesota will look to slow down Oklahoma City star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander without Jaden McDaniels, and advance to a first-round series against the Nuggets.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

Game Info

Injury Reports



  • Rudy Gobert — Back Spasms
  • Jaylen Nowell — Left Knee Tendinopathy
  • Karl-Anthony Towns — Right Calf Strain


  • Luka Garza — Two-Way Contract
  • Jaden McDaniels — Right Hand Fracture
  • Naz Reid — Left Scaphoid Fracture
  • Matt Ryan — Two-Way Contract

Oklahoma City


  • Chet Holmgren — Right Foot Surgery
  • Aleksej Pokusevski — Left Knee Contusion
  • Kenrich Williams — Left Scapholunate Liagament Surgery

What To Watch For

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Can Anyone Stop SGA?

Simply put, the Timberwolves’ chances of winning this game rely more heavily upon slowing down Thunder All-Star point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander more than anything else. The projected First Team All-NBA superstar is the lifeblood of the OKC franchise, and is solely responsible for the Thunder even sniffing meaningful postseason games.

SGA averaged 33.5 points on 52.6/40.0/89.9 shooting in March and followed it up with marks of 31.0 points on 50.0/33.3/88.9, 6.3 dimes, 5.0 rebounds and just 1.7 turnovers in April to edge out Luka Dončić, Kyrie Irving and the Dallas Mavericks for the No. 10 seed and a spot in the Play-In Tournament. Even more troubling for the Timberwolves, Gilgeous-Alexander is third in the NBA in free throw attempts per game (10.9) and fourth in fouls drawn per game (7.2), and has averaged 33.3 points on 52.4/46.2/93.3 splits in three games against the Wolves this year.

While it’s one thing to need someone to step up when Jaden McDaniels gets in foul trouble, forming a gameplan without him entirely is a completely different beast. Keeping Conley and Edwards out of harm’s way defensively will be imperative considering how important they will be offensively against a small-ball switching lineup.

As a result of that, if Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch doesn’t want to start with Edwards on SGA, I expect Nickeil Alexander-Walker to be in the mix for a starting spot over Taurean Prince. Not only does NAW have the length and lateral quickness to stay in front of the fourth-leading scorer in the league, but he knows all of his cousin’s tendencies. SGA and NAW grew up together in Toronto and have gone at it countless times, from driveways to downtown arenas, and everything in between.

If Austin Rivers is recovering well from his length battle with a nasty stomach illness that ran through the Timberwolves locker room, he could be a good option to throw at SGA, too, given his track record holding SGA to the lowest field goal percentage (36.8%) of any Minnesota defender over the last three seasons.

No matter who guards SGA, keeping him out of the paint will be crucial. And when Gilgeous-Alexander inevitably finds his way into the teeth of the defense, Rudy Gobert’s rim presence will be helpful, should he be healthy enough to play. Wolves opponents’ at-rim shot frequency drops from 35.2% with him off the floor to 28.3% with him on the floor; that is the difference between the second-worst (POR, 35.7%) and eighth-best (PHX, 28.5%), per PBP Stats.

Boston Celtics v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

An Opportunity to Respond

No two players are more eagerly awaiting 8:30 PM CT tonight than Gobert and Edwards. Gobert, obviously, was suspended for the Timberwolves’ 108-102 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night, while Edwards played his worst game of the season at a very inopportune time.

Even though he was suspended, Gobert admitted at practice on Thursday that his status likely wouldn’t have been any different had he made the trip to L.A. with the team.

The three-time All-Star is listed as questionable for tonight’s game, but it feels likely he’ll AT least try to give it a go based on his comments to the media yesterday. Luckily for both Rudy and the Wolves, it comes in a spot where his play will definitely be able to swing the outcome of the game. In the two games he played healthy against the Thunder, and didn’t get kicked out of, the big man put up 23 point and 16 rebounds, and 15 points and 15 boards, respectively.

Now, those two performances came in the first three games of the season, but he gobbled up nine offensive rebounds and put together a pair of dominant showings against a team with a very thin center rotation. Oklahoma City will start Jaylin Williams at center, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound rookie, with old friend Dario Šarić (6-10, 225) backing him up. The 7-foot-1, 260-pound Gobert should completely control the boards and find success as a roamer on the back line of a defense that will be laser-focused on preventing dribble penetration from SGA, Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams and Lu Dort. OKC takes 33.3% of its total shots at the rim, sixth in the NBA per PBP Stats, so Gobert could be busy if Edwards, Conley and Co. struggle on the perimeter.

Offensively, the clearest way for Gobert to impact the game is as a screen-setter to get Edwards a better on-ramp driving to the rim, before then working to become a factor on the offensive glass. Karl-Anthony Towns has largely been fantastic at crashing concurrently with Gobert since he returned from injury — a good sign as they will look to impose their size on a small OKC team that ranks 28th in the NBA in defensive rebound rate (69.3%).

As for Edwards, he is coming off the worst game of his All-Star season, in which he scored nine points on a ghastly 3/17 shooting (17.6%) and 0/9 from 3, eight rebounds, five assists and four turnovers. He added four stocks in 42:49 of play, but he failed to give the Timberwolves a much needed scoring boost in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, and essentially became a complete non-factor offensively. Edwards’ performance was especially perplexing given he averaged 29.8 PPG over the team’s final four games of the regular season.

Edwards did not look healthy, either. He took a nasty spill trying to block a shot and later returned to the game with a heavily taped left shoulder. Finch also reported that his young superstar was dealing with cramps throughout the game, as well. Edwards was not on the status report for tonight’s game, meaning he is good to go. Needless to say, but the Wolves will need their heartbeat pumping energy throughout the team at full strength (or damn close to it) to overcome a young, tough and incredibly hard-working Thunder team that will beat them if Minnesota does not take them seriously.

2023 Play-In Tournament - Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Will We Get Another Look at a Composed Karl-Anthony Towns?

Towns completely dominated the first half of the loss to the Lakers, in which he looked composed, in control, and capable of pressing all the right buttons at the right time. Considering the stakes, I thought it was his best two-way half in recent memory.

The best part was that Towns didn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve in a harmful way. Every ounce of energy that he put into the first half was positive, with minimal reactions given to both the officials and his coaches. He celebrated his teammates and wasn’t afraid to let out a roar to pump his brothers up after scoring a big bucket, either.

He continued that energy into the third quarter, but once he picked up his fourth foul late in the period, everything changed. Towns wasn’t playing the same confident, free-flowing brand of basketball; instead, he played not to foul out, rather than to continue operating with the same aggression that ballooned the Wolves’ lead to 15 at one point in the third. As a result, his subdued energy came off as timidness, scared of fouling out and not being out there in a game he registered a team-high +18 in 41:13. Minnesota lost the 8:37 he sat by 24 points.

In order for the Timberwolves to come away victorious, Towns will need to bring the same foundation of composure he built a largely great performance off of on Tuesday, while remaining aggressive at all times he’s on the floor. While it was an awesome sight to see, he cannot rely on Conley and Taurean Prince to shoot a combined 10/15 from 3, or let Edwards isolate with no plan in crunch time.

The Thunder do not have anyone capable of aptly guarding Towns. While Jalen Williams or Dort could guard KAT for a few possessions here or there, he has to destroy switches at a level he did not on Tuesday. Instead of posting up for a position to catch-and-face from 20 feet away from the basket, he needs to catch the ball above the break and drive against smaller defenders to collapse the defense for cutters or just finish at the rim.

We all forget how good of a passer KAT is, but this is a matchup where he should be able to draw a ton of attention and control the half-court offense as a passer when he’s not scoring at all three levels of the defense. However, the first priority for Towns should be to score. He did not score over the final nearly 20 minutes of the game on Tuesday, and that can’t happen. Regardless of whether or not Finch is calling plays for him, Towns needs to find ways to put the ball in the basket and take pressure off ancillary scorers like Conley, Prince and Anderson. He has the opportunity to earn his team at least four more games, but that will slip away if he doesn’t seize it by putting up another 25+ point night.

2023 Play-In Tournament - Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

DraftKings Odds

All lines are courtesy of our friends over at the DraftKings Sportsbook. Let’s make some picks!

Karl-Anthony Towns over 23.5 points (-115)

Towns has gone over this mark just twice in the nine games he’s played since his return from injury, but figures to be heavily involved against a small OKC team he should be able to score easily against at all three levels of the defense. Edwards will draw Dort, one of the league’s best and most physical perimeter defenders, so Towns will be looked to as the primary scoring option against a team that allowed the fourth-most points and most offensive rebounds to opposing power forwards this season.

Mike Conley over 14.5 points (-115) and over 2.5 3-pointers (+110)

The Timberwolves’ PG1 has been a saving grace over the last month. He averaged 16.3 points and 2.6 made 3s per game on 48.0/44.8/84.8 shooting splits over the final 10 games of the season, and has scored at least 15 points in four straight games and six of his last eight. He has also taken at least six 3s in seven straight contests, and has gone o2.5 makes in three of his last four. After scoring north of 20 points for the Utah Jazz just one time in 43 games played, Conley has done so seven times in 25 games played for the Wolves. His aggression is there in big moments, and he’s shooting a team-high 45.9% on catch-and-shoot 3s since his arrival in Minnesota.

Anthony Edwards over 0.5 blocks (-190)

Despite the -190 juice here, it doesn’t scare me. Edwards has seven blocks over his last two games and has been incredibly active as the low-man in lineups behind Towns in pick-and-roll coverage. He will be looking to make defensive plays that kickstart a home crowd especially if his shot isn’t falling, and is playing a small team that makes their hay driving to the basket.

Check out DraftKings Sportsbook, the official sportsbook partner of SB Nation