For the second straight season, defensive rebounding issues have ended the Minnesota Timberwolves’ season.
One year ago, the Wolves’ inability to clear the glass sunk them against the Memphis Grizzlies. It reared its ugly head in the clutch once again during Minnesota’s 112-109 Game 5 defeat to the Denver Nuggets, ending the first-round series.
The Nuggets grabbed 16 offensive rebounds and turned them into 21 second-chance points, seven of which came in the fourth quarter as Denver held off a feisty Wolves team. Nikola Jokić’s putback kickstarted the dagger sequence where the Nuggets gained the necessary separation in the final minute.
Rudy Gobert will get a lot of blame for the defensive rebounding issues given that it was a primary reason for acquiring him, and he did get beat to a few key boards by Aaron Gordon down the stretch. But he also led the team with 11 defensive rebounds (to go along with 16 points on six shots). Blaming a team effort stat on one guy is not totally fair. If every Wolf boxed out on every possession, it wouldn’t have been as much of an issue.
The fact that the Wolves were even in this game is pretty wild considering how few breaks they got. Jamal Murray finished off an exemplary series with 35 points on 23 shots and five assists. Nikola Jokić shot poorly but still threw up a 28-17-12 triple-double. The Wolves shot 8-of-33 from three and lost the free throw game by 13 points.
That the game was ever close came down to strong individual nights from Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns. The two combined for 55 of Minnesota’s 109 points and did so while shooting 50% from the floor.
Edwards concluded his season with another big-time performance, going for 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists and repeatedly attacking the rim despite receiving few foul calls. Perhaps his best highlight of the night, though, was a levitating, ethereal transition block on Bruce Brown in the third quarter.
If you wanted another look at that Anthony Edwards block: pic.twitter.com/QLys0mVT9B— Aidan Berg (@AidanBerg_) April 26, 2023
Edwards nearly hit a tying 3-pointer as time ran out, but drew back iron as Minnesota’s last gasp fell through.
Towns, meanwhile, shrugged off a poor first half to come through when the Wolves needed him, tallying 21 second-half points on the strength of some gritty drives that resulted in foul calls. He also defended Jokić for much of the Serbian big man’s 8-of-29 shooting night, and although Jokić ultimately fouled him out in the final seconds, it was as good a defensive performance as Towns has had in a high-leverage game.
The Wolves around Towns did a pretty good job on defense, rebounding notwithstanding. Limiting an elite offense such as Denver’s to 40% shooting at home is nothing to sneeze at. The issue was on the other end, where the Wolves simply didn’t have enough shot-making or creation outside of Edwards and Towns.
Gobert had a few strong finishes at the basket, but Edwards clearly didn’t trust passing him the ball when Denver doubled the guard on screens, bogging down the attack late. Taurean Prince and Nickeil Alexander-Walker made a few threes, but Mike Conley struggled to just seven points. As has often been the case this season, the Wolves were so close, but their advantages were constricted by their limitations.
The absences of Jaden McDaniels, Kyle Anderson and Naz Reid were certainly felt in the offensive struggles, both in Game 5 and the series as a whole. Perhaps it would be enough to run it back (re-signing Reid, if possible) and hope for internal improvement and better-than-awful injury luck next season. Whatever the decisions are, though, they need to be based around securing more consistency on that end of the floor. That is priority No. 1.
The Wolves fought hard in the final three games against a No. 1 seed while short-handed, after a season in which they dealt with a major injury to Towns. The effort was valiant. But those are excuses that won’t hold up for long given the expectations this team entered the season with. They have a summer to work out the kinks and come back better in the fall. They have to make the most of it.