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How the Conference Finals Act as a Reality Check for the Timberwolves

The level play from the four final teams highlights the distance between the Timberwolves and the league’s elite.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Miami Heat Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Watching the Conference Finals is often an exciting yet unfamiliar experience for Minnesota Timberwolves fans. The team has reached the second round once in its existence, when the Wolves lost to Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 Western Conference Finals.

They’ve now made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in 20 years, yet it feels as if a conference crown is unattainable. When watching the No. 8 seed Miami Heat take the first three games against the 57-win Boston Celtics, or seeing the Denver Nuggets sweep a very good Lakers team, reality becomes hauntingly clear.

Despite having various pieces in place — franchise cornerstone Anthony Edwards, elite two-way player Jaden McDaniels, rim-protecting center Rudy Gobert, and versatile offensive talent Karl-Anthony Towns — it’s evident while watching masterclass performances from the final four teams that the Timberwolves have serious work to do to hang with the best.

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

Elite Head Coaching

As play on the court does, the quality of coaching skyrockets in the postseason. Xs and Os, rotation patterns and game plan tactics become more intense, but playoff experience and morale play a role just as important.

Miami Head Coach Erik Spoelstra possesses an ability to lead that few others have. His extensive postseason experience and rise from video coordinator to second-longest tenured head coach in the league is critical to a Heat team that rarely loses its cool. That journey, combined with the innate grit and undying determination from undrafted and written-off Heat players, creates a personality that thrives when things get tense.

Miami Heat v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

It would be hard to draw up a more challenging series for Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch this postseason. Down McDaniels, playing against the No. 1 seed in the West, and one of your players punching a teammate just one week earlier made for a not-so-breezy first-round matchup.

Working with an incredibly thin rotation, and a clearly less-than-100% Rudy Gobert, Finch guided the Wolves through a series that included one win. They weren’t nearly on the same level as the Nuggets in terms of maturity and execution, but they fought.

Having a coach that cultivates fight-like-hell energy is integral to a team’s mentality. It’s at the core of every successful team, as they instill the thought that they’re capable — and deserving — of winning.

Finch isn’t at Spoelstra’s — or Denver Nuggets Head Coach Michael Malone’s — level yet, and that’s not unexpected. It takes time. But for the Timberwolves to eventually get to Miami- or Denver-level play, he’ll need to be as good as them tactically and when balancing emotions.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

High-Level Role Players

Not enough can be said about Denver’s offseason additions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown. They’re two high-energy, versatile, and experienced players that are essential to a team like the Nuggets that play with pace and instinctively in the flow of the offense.

After building through the draft (Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokić, Michael Porter Jr., etc.), it was imperative for Denver to bring in high-level role players to surround their stars. It’s now the blueprint for small-market teams looking to build sustainable rosters that can make deep playoff runs.

Adding KCP’s championship experience to this specific roster was a huge get, without even considering his basketball talent. Falling short in the playoffs the last few seasons required someone to help them get over the hump (and just a healthy Jamal Murray, really), and instead of emptying their war chest for another player, they took a long, hard look at their options.

Before he arrived in Denver, Caldwell-Pope played no fewer than 67 games in any of his nine seasons. He’d shot just under 40% from beyond the arc in his last three seasons combined, and his skills fit perfectly around their existing roster. He’d won a championship with the Lakers in the bubble while playing 29 minutes per game in a starting role in the playoffs. He was a proven winner, exactly what they needed.

Dallas Mavericks v Denver Nuggets Photo by Justin Tafoya/Getty Images

Brown’s abilities were potentially overshadowed by a tumultuous big three in Brooklyn, his screen-setting, passing and defense in the background as the Nets worked through the difficulties of a top-heavy roster. A bit of an ironman himself, Brown played in 82% of his possible games through four seasons.

He was a good shooter on low volume in the regular season, but struggled to space in the playoffs. He’d shown flashes of competency, though, and next to shooters like Murray and Porter, it might just work.

Brown shot almost 36% from 3-point land on career-high volume this season. He also averaged a career-high 11.5 points per contest.

They committed to him as a two-way threat, and it panned out.

NBA: MAY 22 Western Conference Final - Nuggets at Lakers Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Heat are the gold standard for scouring for NBA talent, as their recent Game 5 blunder without Gabe Vincent proved how heavily relied on their role players can be.

Vincent, Duncan Robinson, Caleb Martin and Max Strus are all undrafted players, each of them playing critical roles in this team’s playoff run (Haywood Highsmith in Game 5 as well).

The Timberwolves have had recent success with under-the-radar talent; Naz Reid, Jordan McLaughlin and Jaylen Nowell have all periodically contributed to the team winning games. As a small market team, it’s even more imperative the Wolves do their scouting due diligence.

From a financial standpoint at this particular moment (all moments, really), it can’t be overstated how valuable rotation players on rookie deals would be.

Unwavering Competitive Mindset

A little swag never hurts.

Jimmy Butler’s Heat are no strangers to the highs and lows of the NBA, having lost in the finals to the Milwaukee Bucks in 2021. Even after losing in Game 7 to these same Celtics, Butler had this to say:

Players often make claims about the future, with few coming to fruition. Perhaps it only feels this way because it actually might in this case, but Butler’s message had a different feel considering the Heat’s — and Butler’s — history.

After losing Games 4 and 5, Butler’s confidence seems to be relatively unshaken. He said after Thursday’s loss that Miami will win the next game.

Minnesota has a star wing/guard themselves, one that’s shown Butler-like abilities (minus the experience) by becoming the emotional heartbeat of the team. Edwards has been vocal about wanting to win and has brushed aside accolades and future money, which is unique for a 21-year-old.

For Edwards, the next step is to lead. Not just in terms of production, but to curate a Miami-type team personality that oozes confidence and self-awareness. Butler’s brought swag and grit when this team needed it most, and those emotions have infected the group around him.

There’s certainly no lack of personality with Edwards. When paired with his ability to take over games, there’s no reason he can’t have a Butler-like affect.

The Gap

The Wolves don’t have the talent scouting, coaching prowess, nor the elite role players like the Heat and Nuggets.

But it’s far too early to expect Minnesota to have the same continuity those teams have. Talent scouting — and talent acquisition — can always be better, but experience can’t be rushed.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Finch is entering his fourth season as an NBA head coach, Spoelstra came into this season having coached in Miami for 14 seasons and Michael Malone for 10 (eight in Denver).

Jimmy Butler has been to the playoffs 11 times.

It’s natural to compare the Timberwolves to the league’s elite around this time of year, but the reality is that they’re too early in their process to even have that conversation. The talent is comparable, but they don’t have the experience — players and coach — to thrive in the postseason yet.

It takes time.