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Wolves vs. Nuggets Game 2 Film Review: The Optimization of Anthony Edwards

A bounceback playoff 40-spot from the 21-year-old guard shined a light on how to maximize his game-changing talent in a high-stakes contest.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets - Game Two Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Regardless of the result of this playoff series when it gets etched in the annuls of Basketball Reference, the Minnesota Timberwolves will learn. And the lesson at night class on Wednesday was “give Anthony Edwards the keys.”

I specifically refrained from writing “let Anthony Edwards cook.” There’s a distinct difference, in my subjective opinion, between the two phrases.

Giving someone the keys means they own the car. They’re the final call on detailing, the type of fuel that goes in the vehicle, the music playlist and which repairs are priorities. Everything goes through them. The day-to-day deserves their attention and approval to make the car operate at a high level.

Letting someone cook is a far more individualistic endeavor. Often it’s a freelancing of sorts, the collateral not standing to gain much at all from the actions of the one. They’re throwing paprika, onion powder and garlic salt over their shoulders, sometimes splattering grease on gazing bystanders, but ultimately providing a product that isn’t enjoyable for all in attendance.

If my automotive and culinary metaphors didn’t drive you to exit the page yet, here’s the point: for the Timberwolves to have any kind of chance in this first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the Denver Nuggets — and long-term, a chance to retain and enhance their most promising player — they must commit to putting Edwards in the best positions possible to be effective.

We wrote Monday about the flashes of high pick-and-roll between Edwards and Rudy Gobert that exposed Nikola Jokić in drop coverage. Nuggets Head Coach Michael Malone expected to see more of it in Game 2, and we did (some incredible efficiency stats coming on that later). The concerted effort to get the 21-year-old going led to a 41-point masterpiece to the tune of 14-23 shooting, 6-10 from beyond the arc.

Let’s dive into how it happened.

Cutting Off-Ball

Ant isn’t really known for being an active threat off the ball inside the arc, and he only did it once in Game 2, but it’s worth noting because he got active early in the game. Most defenses expect him to be a spacer when he stands on the weak side of the offensive action. To get himself involved early and see an inside bucket go down, he smartly did this:

The play begins with Mike Conley getting a token ball screen from Gobert, leading to zoom action for Edwards — a zoom is a down screen followed by a dribble hand-off (DHO). It’s a great way to get Ant moving with two players creating a situation for the defense to switch or have to fight through two solid screens in order to recover.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope does a nice job of fighting over the Gobert screen to cut off Ant’s corner turn, forcing him to give the ball up. It comes right back to Edwards and he immediately swings it as the defense is loaded to him. Eventually, Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s drive collapses Denver bodies and eyes into the paint, and a perfectly timed cut from the slot behind KCP’s head gets Edwards downhill with a head of steam to finish high at the basket.

Ant scored 1.66 points per possession this season on cuts, good for the 96th percentile, per Synergy.

High Ball Screens

The spread pick-and-roll is going to continue serving as Minnesota’s best quick-hitting offense throughout the entire series because Denver’s big men aren’t suited to cover it well. Jokić and Jeff Green don’t have the foot speed to stay with a downhill version of Anthony Edwards. He’s either getting a layup or getting fouled, as shown in multitudes here:

I think there are plenty of viable alignments for Minnesota to exploit in this action in the rest of the series, even trying out different screeners depending on who’s in the game for the Nuggets. The first clip catches my eye as it’s basically in transition, Edwards bringing the ball up intentionally to Gobert’s side for a screen.

The defensive three-second rule comes into play here. By emptying the side of the screen, there’s no paint help available until the last second from the three-man side, where the rest of the Wolves are camping out. Michael Porter Jr. has to stay on the other side of the floor until Ant is already gathering and elevating at the basket. That’s a tough play without fouling as a help defender. Utilizing this spacing early in the shot clock makes a lot of sense for a Wolves halfcourt offense that struggles to score lately.

Other things that stand out from the montage of clips involving an Edwards pick-and-roll include Gobert slipping a screen and Edwards simply outrunning two Denver players from the perimeter to the basket and specifically hunting out Jeff Green’s lack of defensive decision-making when Karl-Anthony Towns is the screener.

The most common action in professional basketball netted the Timberwolves 1.23 points per possession on 30 possessions in Game 2. Need a more convincing argument for spamming that offense? On the 11 possessions that included an Anthony Edwards pick-and-roll Wednesday night, the Wolves scored an unfathomable 1.82 points per possession.

Versatility From Deep

Edwards was a 37% shooter from beyond the arc this year, the best mark of his three NBA seasons. He had streaks of forcing three-pointers at times, but when he’s on his game, there isn’t much you can do to stop it. What stood out in Game 2 was the variety of ways he got to his six downtown makes.

Go down the list and we see buckets in the following formats:

  • Balanced jab step isolation
  • Two dribbles left off a ball screen
  • Off-ball pump fake step-back
  • Stop-on-a-dime transition pull-up
  • Clean catch-and-shoot
  • “Blind pig” no-dribble handoff

The result was Edwards becoming the youngest player in NBA history to score 40 points and make at least five 3-pointers made in a single playoff game.

Giving Ant the right situations to maximize his skillset makes a huge difference in his efficiency as opposed to the ball stopping in his hands after a couple of reversals from non-threatening teammates. That’s what “giving him the keys” looks like — full optimization of his athleticism, brute force and all-around shooting to push a sputtering offense over the top in meaningful games.

“Letting him cook” will burn Head Coach Chris Finch and the rest of the roster.