Whether it’s fair or unfair, star players are judged by the way they perform when the stakes are highest. Putting up big numbers from October through the beginning of April puts your name on the map, but the true great ones separate themselves in the playoffs.
The best of the best don’t just maintain their level of play in the playoffs, they raise it. Stars such as Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James are obvious names that come to mind here, but the same goes for players like Jimmy Butler, Donovan Mitchell and even Jamal Murray.
On the other hand are guys whose regular season success doesn’t translate to the playoffs at the same level. The most notorious player in this category is James Harden, with Paul George just recently dispelling this dark cloud hanging over his head. Trae Young is another player that is well on his way down this path, so long as Ben Simmons isn’t helping him out.
Unfortunately for the Minnesota Timberwolves, without a drastic turn in their first round series against the Denver Nuggets, Karl-Anthony Towns may be the next player added to the theoretical list of guys who just don’t get it done in the playoffs. In 13 career playoff games, Towns is averaging roughly 17.5 points per game on 45% shooting. Possibly even more frustrating, he is averaging less than 13 shots a game in the playoffs, and occasionally becomes totally invisible.
Passivity has not been the main culprit to start this series, but nonetheless the results have not been there, as Towns has given the Wolves 21 total points on 8-for-27 shooting through two games. Those totals would look worse if not for a short spurt to begin the fourth quarter of Game 1. While Game 1 was still somewhat in the balance, Towns gave the Wolves 4 points through three quarters. Additionally, KAT has more than twice as many turnovers (9) as he does assists (4) to this point in the series.
After all of that, one last chance to change the public perception of himself lies at his feet. Minnesota has lost each of the first two games, but the second-half of Game 2 should give the team confidence that they can right the ship at home in Games 3 and 4. They cannot do it without their three-time All-Star, who should be a walking mismatch every time down on the offensive end.
Too often, though, Towns makes things harder than they have to be on offense both individually and for the team. We saw in the third quarter of Game 2 that the best way to attack the Nuggets defense is to run pick-and-roll over and over. When you do so, you normally either involve Nikola Jokić in the screening action — where he’s vulnerable — or isolate him as the weak-side rim protector. Minnesota ran pick-and-roll with great frequency and success in the second half, but it was almost exclusively with Rudy Gobert as the screener for Anthony Edwards or Mike Conley.
For Minnesota to get back into this series, Towns needs to find a way to fit into that framework. KAT is the best shooter and spacer on the Wolves, so his presence at the 3-point line puts Denver’s defense in a pickle if Ant and Rudy relentlessly pressure the rim. Either they send extra help to the rim, end up in rotation, where the ball should eventually find an open Towns for three, or they stay home and are forced to deal with the Wolves in the paint without extra help. There is tremendous value in Towns spacing out and playing off the catch, either to shoot or drive, after Edwards has tilted the defense into an advantageous spot for Minnesota.
Rudy Gobert dunk, assisted by Karl-Anthony Towns + Anthony Edwards off staggered screens pic.twitter.com/uz40z6CUzc— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) April 20, 2023
Sometimes, Denver will put two guys on the ball in an effort to get the ball out of Edwards’ hands early. That’s a prime time for Towns to flash to the ball and get a running head start against a rotating defense. From there, he can score or flex his passing ability to create easy offense for others. All of these actions should get KAT moving in an advantageous spot, as opposed to trying to score 1-on-5 with all eyes on him.
He doesn’t have to just be an off-ball threat, either. The Ant/Rudy pairing works because Rudy almost always sets a good screen and Ant is almost always able to get to the rim. The Ant-KAT actions can be effective too, if KAT sets a semi-real screen and both players run the action at full-speed. There are too many times where the Wolves two best players run their pick-and-pop action seemingly at half-speed, just expecting the defense to serve up a good look on a silver platter. If they run that action hard, the defense will likely need to switch.
When the defense switches, that is when it’s time for KAT to look to post-up. He can’t give up position and end up catching at or near the 3-point line, before crab dribbling for a handful of seconds and killing the flow of the offense. Defenders such as Aaron Gordon and Bruce Brown are strong, but they should not be able to push Towns out so deep that when he reverse-pivots to face the basket, he is nearly at the 3-point line.
KAT’s advantage over those players is not in his ability to put the ball on the deck and drive past them, it should be his ability to catch on the block or in the mid-post and get Minnesota a good shot in the paint. So long as he stops holding the ball and letting the defense get set, that should be another club in Minnesota’s bag out of their two-man actions.
There’s a lot to work on, but this isn’t anything that is unreasonable to ask of Karl-Anthony Towns.
What’s being asked of him defensively is probably unfair to him due to the way this roster is constructed, but there is absolutely still a place for him to be an impactful offensive player if he works to find his fit. In fact, we saw him do some of this very stuff in the third quarter of Game 2! Not to mention his big showing against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second Play-In Game. He’s shown in one small spurt that he can do this stuff, but it needs to be a full-game commitment from him moving forward. He is just too good of a player to be so ineffective in these big moments.
Time is running out for Karl-Anthony Towns to write his own playoff story, but he has one final, golden opportunity in front of him.