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Minnesota Timberwolves Player Grades: NBA Playoffs Game 1 vs Nuggets

Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker highlight as the few bright spots in the Timberwolves thoroughly disappointing start to the postseason.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

The end of the school year comes with one last test of a student’s mettle: finals week. For teachers, finals week coincided with a mountain of grading standing between us and summer break. While this week of testing is nobody’s favorite, finals are supposed to be a good reflection of a student’s acumen throughout the year. It was pretty rare to have a “C” student show up for the week of finals, completely overhaul their study habits, and fly through the week with “A’s.”

Here’s the thing about the NBA version of finals week: Your performance in the postseason can render everything that happened in the regular season moot. But just like students, teams don’t usually hit the playoffs and suddenly change all their habits from the regular season.

As a team, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been that underachieving student throughout the school year trying to take every shortcut possible, far more content to spend their time playing video games rather than studying, and ultimately getting by on their natural talent without pushing themselves to be something more. There is an unearned confidence that when things really matter, they’ll come around and play up to their potential.

Well, the Timberwolves just took the first of their finals tests and bombed. Perhaps digging yourself a one-game hole was the cost of the exhausting final must-win month of the season. It could be just one bad game and come Wednesday night, everything will feel different. But discounting the warning signs of the regular season feels like folly when figuring out what is going to come the rest of the way.

Onto the grades.

Three important reminders:

1. These grades are roles-based, so the stats I’m looking at for each player are different.

2. Single game grades and playoff stats are going to be an incredibly small sample-size and very reactionary. There will be a lot more variance in grades from game to game.

3. Many of the stat ranges I’ve created have been upped from their regular season counterparts. Raised minutes and expectations will put more of a spotlight on performance.

Mike Conley Game 1 Grade: 84% (B)

Based on advanced metrics like win shares and PIE, Conley had the largest overall positive impact on the court for the Timberwolves. He paired a solid defense with a scorching 80% true shooting percentage, and got three assists without any turnovers.

Conley was one of the few players who felt prepared for Sunday night. I highly recommend reading the full story by Jace Frederick as it does paint a picture of Conley the vet trying to impart some wisdom to his younger teammates about how to prepare for playoff games. Here’s to hoping that the rest of his teammates join him by preparing the right way for Wednesday’s game.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker Game 1 Grade: 90% (A-)

Remember that these grades are roles-based, and the reason Alexander-Walker started game one was to matchup with Jamal Murray. Here is Murray’s stat line when being guarded by NAW:

2/8 FGs (1-3 3pt), three assists, one turnover, and one shot blocked.

The majority of the damage that Murray did against the Timberwolves was either on cross matches in transition, or when Murray was guarded by someone else. Alexander-Walker may not be Jaden McDaniels, but he has the capacity to make this a long series for Murray.

The offensive shotmaking is a bonus, so combining NAW’s defense against Murray and effective three point shooting, he gets the only “A” range grade of the day.

Anthony Edwards Game 1 Grade: 68% (D+)

For this team to have any chance at making this a competitive series, Edwards has to go back to flashing that superstar scoring potential. There will be all kinds of offseason questions about how the two-big lineup could be hampering his ability to score, but it’s not the offseason yet and he needs to find a way to make a statement on Wednesday night by getting downhill on the Nuggets defense and forcing them to scramble.

Speaking of statements, while the starters for both teams were unnecessarily on the floor in the game one blowout, Nikola Jokić delivered a flagrant foul elbow to Edwards’ face that the young all-star did not take kindly to. On Wednesday, I’d predict that Edwards will hunt an early poster dunk on Jokić, which could incite the whole team to play with the passion necessary to win a game two on the road.

Karl-Anthony Towns Game 1 Grade: 49% (F)

It is fitting that Towns spoke postgame about the need to flush the game, because it was absolute shit. Even with a stat line buoyed by some garbage time scoring, Towns ended the game with a negative PER, negative win share, and a PIE score that looks like a middling role player.

Like Edwards, Towns needs to increase his physicality and make things much harder on the Nuggets defense. Jared Martinson’s film breakdown did a great job of showing how off-rhythm KAT’s early game shots were, settling into bad shots that the defense was happy to give him.

Flushing one bad game is great if it leads to a bounce back performance that justifies the goldfish-like memory. But if there are more bad games to flush, we will be talking about a clogged toilet all offseason.

Rudy Gobert Game 1 Grade: 65% (D)

Rudy Gobert was a team-worst -28 on the night. This is a reflection of the disaster that was the team’s transition defense and offensive effectiveness while the seven foot center was laboring on the court.

He’s clearly not 100%, but he still needs to find a way to be effective in slowing down Nikola Jokić. Even though Towns started game one by guarding Jokić and ultimately spent more time in that matchup, I’ll still be putting a focus on the Gobert/Jokić matchup since Jokić is the focal point of the offense and Gobert is the anchor of the Timberwolves defense.

When Gobert was guarding him, Jokić was 2/3 from the field (the one miss being a blocked shot in Gobert’s best moment of the night) with one assist in limited minutes. In the same way Finch is letting NAW be Murray-focused, maybe part of the answer to both Gobert’s and Town’s struggle is to let Gobert be more one-track minded: Go out there and make Jokić’s night miserable.

Kyle Anderson Game 1 Grade: 78% (C+)

Contrary to his second half of the season, Anderson struggled to fill the box score outside of points. Being the pseudo back-up point guard for this team, Anderson needs to generate offensive moves beyond his own and get others more involved, something that he struggled with on Sunday.

He continues to be one of the most important and versatile defenders in the group. But he is part of the common theme emerging in the grades - he just needs to be better offensively,

Taurean Prince Game 1 Grade: 55% (F)

Stop me if this sounds familiar, but Taurean Prince had a bad game. With McDaniels out, Prince needs to replicate some of the offensive creation that McDaniel’s had - specifically the off-the-dribble game. He’ll need to be better than his game one disappearing act of going 0/4 from the field in twenty-one minutes.

Jordan McLaughlin Game 1 Grade: 50% (F)

Watching McLaughlin struggle in these meaningful games is painful. He has long been lauded as a guy who is team first. His play over the last two seasons has garnered him a lot of love from coaches and fans alike. But he has been nearly unplayable since the regular season ended. Over the three postseason games, the normal plus/minus darling is a -18.

Maybe it’s his healing calf injury, a lack of chemistry with a changed up roster, or just a cold slump, but the team doesn’t have the luxury of waiting till he gets right.

Jaylen Nowell Game 1 Grade: 80% (B-)

Jaylen Nowell is the first solution I’d try to bolster the offense and McLaughlin’s struggles. As the season came to a close, it was clear that Naz Reid became the microwave scorer off the bench, but with Reid out, Nowell needs to claim that role back.

He has the most offensive scoring upside of any player on the bench, and for a team that is desperately seeking answers on offense, it’s a now-or-never time for Nowell.

Austin Rivers Game 1 Grade: 85% (B)

Rivers is the other candidate to get some of the McLaughlin minutes should those struggles continue. In his brief time in the game on Sunday, it was good to see Rivers hit a shot from deep, something he’ll have to replicate with his earlier consistency if he wants to play more non-garbage-time minutes.

Josh Minott Game 1 Grade: 75% (C)

Minott gets the inclusion at the end of the article here as the “break glass in case of emergency” guy should the Timberwolves be similarly shut down in game two. During his six minutes of play, Minott had two steals and a block, earning him the highest defensive rating on the team.

Of course it was just six minutes, but Minott can play with a Vanderbilt-like chaos and intensity that this team may just need to muck up the series. Afterall, it’s springtime: break out the lawnmower.

Exploiting Weakness

There really isn’t a tangible way to track coaching performances in these grading articles outside of team performance, so based on the Timberwolves performance, Chris Finch would get an “F” as well. Mike Malone and the Denver Nuggets have clearly identified the Timberwolves’ weaknesses and are going out of their way to exploit them. Is Finch doing that? Through one game, it’s hard to tell.

Here’s the biggest example that stood out to me: Denver struggles when Jokić is off the floor due to a lack of depth and an offensive system built around his generational skill set.

Altitude affecting rotations or not, when Jokić left the floor for the final three minutes of the first quarter, the Timberwolves took out their two players best suited to land a haymaker (Edwards and Towns) and instead went with a more offensively-challenged lineup of McLaughlin, Alexander-Walker, Prince, Anderson and Gobert.

That lineup will be solid defensively, but that specific combination of a bench unit might be the one that Mike Malone himself would pick if he wanted his team to best weather the Jokić-less minutes. The Timberwolves had a chance to disrupt Denver’s strong start with a counter punch, but instead took a defensive stance to run out the clock for the rest of the quarter.

Targeting these minutes have to be part of the game plan come Wednesday night. Like the team he coaches, Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch has to be better to give his team a chance to win Game 2.