Following a rocky opening night win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in which the Thunder erased a once-16-point deficit, the Minnesota Timberwolves had a lot to prove on Friday night against the Utah Jazz.
Minnesota sent Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, Walker Kessler, Leandro Bolmaro, four first-round picks, and the right to swap a fifth pick to Salt Lake City back in July in exchange for three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.
Tonight, the Wolves had the opportunity to send a clear message that it was all worth it.
Head coach Chris Finch’s group came out of the gates firing on all cylinders offensively both in the half-court and in transition.
D’Angelo Russell and Gobert quickly found a rhythm in the pick-and-roll (PnR) game that led to 10 quick D-Lo points, Karl-Anthony Towns made his first two looks from beyond the arc, and Anthony Edwards asserted himself early, unlike on Wednesday, with a team-high 11 points.
Perhaps more importantly, Minnesota allowed one offensive rebound (after surrendering 16 to Oklahoma City) and converted good contests into defensive stops. Those spawned early offense and nine first quarter fast break points that put the Wolves in front by as much as 17 before the first horn sounded. Settling in offensively defused tension caused by Towns’ second offensive foul of the game and back spasms ending Kyle Anderson’s night after 38 seconds of game time.
Complacency then unmasked issues the Wolves faced in their first five periods of the young regular season.
“I mean it was a little bit of a carbon copy of the other day. I thought we lost focus in our offense in the second quarter,” Finch said postgame. “We just kinda didn’t take the stuff that was there. Played a little too cute. They allowed ‘em to tighten it up a little bit.”
Minnesota generated two free throw attempts after getting there nine times in the first quarter, made one 3, and turned it over seven times.
As the offense faded, so did the mask covering up earlier flashes of defensive breakdowns. The stocky Lauri Markkanen created open shots by driving through Jaden McDaniels to reduce the impact of McDaniels’ contests. Towns too frequently lost sight of Jazz stretch 5 Kelly Olynyk. Minnesota guards offered minimal physical resistance at the point of attack, resulting in Jazz paint touches and kick-outs for open 3s. Worst of all, Utah turned five offensive rebounds into seven second chance points.
Although Minnesota held a nine-point lead, 64-55, entering the halftime break, the writing was on the wall. Instead of maintaining a dominant aggression and ballooning a 17-point lead to 25, the Wolves took their collective foot off the gas, allowed the advantage to slip to nine, and set the tone for the third quarter.
Utah came out of the locker room playing with house money. Head coach Will Hardy placed an emphasis on the drive-and-kick game to open up more looks from 3 and his players bought in. The Jazz got up four threes in their first four possessions and connected on three of them to cut the lead down to two in 1:36 of play.
Faced with a similar situation on Wednesday, Finch elected not to call a timeout — a signal he wants a new group of players to learn about each other in adverse stretches. Between allowing four 3s, committing four turnovers that led to nine of those 12 points, and giving up three offensive rebounds in only 3:10 of play, the Wolves deservedly found themselves trailing for the first time, 69-68.
“I was joking around with the guys saying we’re the best, worst defensive team we’ve ever seen. Because on the ball, guys are incredible. ... But we shoot ourselves in the foot with these little moments where we lose focus,” Gobert said postgame. “We’ve to go, each and every one of us, watch clips and build those habits. Once we start doing that, when we’re locked in, as we saw in the first two quotes.”
The Wolves, in each of their first two games, put those defensive habits on display in bursts. But at the NBA level — especially against teams with as many good shooters as Utah has — a lead can disappear in a hurry during extended stretches of poor effort at the point of attack and attention to detail off-ball.
“Today it was a lot of ball-contain (issues). They were spreading us out and got some easy kick-outs. Just not physical enough,” Finch said. “We have to get into guys and they have to feel us a little bit more, whether it’s their handling or if they’re trying to get through a screen.”
That led to led to open 3 after open Jazz 3 in the third quarter. Although Utah made seven of their 21 attempts in the frame, a respectable 33% clip from a defensive perspective, the Jazz capitalized on long rebounding opportunities by corralling six of those 14 misses and cashing them in for 10 points.
That’s why they blew a 16-point lead to the Thunder and a 17-point lead on Friday. There aren’t any valid excuses for allowing 35 offensive rebounds and 45 second chance points in any two-game stretch with Towns and Gobert on the roster.
“So I think that’s part of the learning process for us, just learning how to like, when you get up 12, try to keep your foot on the gas, keep doing the little things. Instead of giving up easy shots that we can take away, get up 20 and then it’s a different game,” Gobert added. “We’re a young team, so we’ve got to keep grinding, keep the right mindset, focusing on what we need to focus on, and we’ll be alright.”
Luckily for the Wolves, Edwards and Jaylen Nowell did everything in their power to save a disastrous third quarter. The 2020 No. 1 overall sensed he needed to take control of the game; Edwards poured in Minnesota’s first 11 points of the quarter before he passed the baton to Nowell. The microwave scorer netted a banger 3 that pulled the Timberwolves back within one, set the crowd ablaze, and created a rhythm he rode to score the team’s next 10 points.
“Unstoppable. Me and Jaylen on the court together is a pretty good-looking thing for sure,” Edwards told Canis Hoopus postgame.
Their chemistry pops off the screen. With every bucket each player gives opposing defenses, the more their belief in each other grows.
“He’s got confidence in me and I got confidence in him,” Edwards added. “We might be at the free throw line and he be like, ‘I’m coming to you.’ And I might be like, ‘I’m comin’ to you!’”
Everybody is gonna find out who Jaylen Nowell is— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) October 22, 2022
Despite his increased role, Nowell never lacked confidence.
“His confidence has never been low. Last year he just didn’t play a lot,” Edwards said about the 2019 Pac-12 Player of the Year. “But in practice? Aw, man, same Jaylen. Buckets after buckets.”
The dynamic perimeter duo scored the Timberwolves’ first 21 points of the period before Jordan McLaughlin beat the third quarter buzzer with an acrobatic layup to keep the home fans into it, down one entering the fourth.
Throughout the first three quarters, Towns struggled to find his footing scoring the ball as a result of foul trouble curtailing his normal playing time. He tried to make up for it early in the fourth, getting up six shots in the first 3:47 of game time after shooting eight times in his first 16:46 played. While Towns scored four points, he didn’t look comfortable.
Russell supported him with a made 3 and Gobert put-back one of his misses to gain some momentum, but Beasley didn’t let Minnesota pull away. The former Wolf drained three triples that cut Minnesota leads from four to one and three to zero, before the final blast gave Utah a 100-98 lead with 7:29 to play.
The Wolves and Jazz traded blows like heavyweight fighters for the next four minutes, with neither side separating themselves by more than three points.
Beasley’s fight-back tone, evidently fueled by a mission to prove the Wolves wrong for trading him, resonated with his teammates. After an Edwards layup gave the Wolves a three-point lead with four minutes to play, Jordan Clarkson made a tough 3 to tie it before Minnesota lost Olynyk in transition for a go-ahead bomb.
You could feel a shared feeling of “Are we doing this again?” among the 17,136 fans in attendance, who remember all too well the blown leads against the Memphis Grizzlies in last season’s playoffs.
Predictably, Minnesota turned it over on the ensuing possession, while the Jazz made two 3s on back-to-back trips to extend their lead to seven, their largest of the game. That set in motion, with 1:54 to play, everyone’s favorite game: ‘Who can get out of the ABC ramps first?’
From there on in, Gobert and Co. locked in defensively and showcased how quickly they flip a game on its head. The Timberwolves’ rotations were crisp, they ran shooters off the line, allowed zero second chances, shared the ball offensively, and crashed the offensive boards.
Gobert’s 23rd rebound of the night proved to be his most crucial one yet.
That set the stage for D’Angelo Russell to do what D’Angelo Russell does: make big shots in clutch moments.
D'Angelo Russell is now 7 for 13 on game-tying or go-ahead shots in final :10 of 4th quarter or OT over the last 2+ seasons -- best in the NBA.— Alan Horton (@WolvesRadio) October 22, 2022
To overtime we went.
After Edwards, Nowell and Russell largely got the Wolves to overtime with their scoring, Towns felt it was his turn to carry the team and a sell-out crowd on his back. He scored the first bucket of OT, but Clarkson answered the bell with a 3 of his own.
Towns felt the moment was his.
The three-time All-Star scored on two of the team’s next three possessions to retake a 126-125 lead, but no one else was involved offensively and his scoring didn’t feel sustainable.
Keep in mind that Towns last season ranked fourth in the NBA in isolation scoring efficiency (1.13 points per possession) among players with at least one isolation per game and 50 games played, so it’s not as though playing through one of the league’s most versatile scorers was a bad idea.
But doing so with limited screening, ball movement, or player movement for an extended stretch in overtime didn’t promote the collaborative effort needed to put away a scrappy Jazz squad. Towns took the team’s first six shots of overtime. He put up 17 of his 25 shots in the fourth quarter and overtime, going 6/17 (35.3%).
“I just felt it was the moment,” Towns said postgame. “I feel like I get paid for those moments. So I wanted to try to be as aggressive as possible and dictate the game.”
After Mike Conley drained a tough go-ahead 3 with 1:01 left to give Utah a 128-126 lead, Russell finally attempted the first non-Towns shot with 41 seconds left in the five-minute period. Out of rhythm, it didn’t fall. But Utah couldn’t secure a board, opening up the chance for Towns to find a wide open Gobert in the paint slipping a double-drag screen. Conley smartly fouled him and Gobert missed both free throws.
33 seconds later Jarred Vanderbilt — the headlining player in the Wolves’ outgoing package — threw down a cathartic dunk with one second left to cap off an impressive 132-126 win in his old home arena.
Minnesota’s offensive approach in overtime abandoned what got them there; Edwards scored 30 points in regulation on 9/14 shooting in the paint but the Wolves failed to get him a shot in overtime. Not a single look.
“It’s on me. I have to get him the ball more. We ran a couple things to get the ball in his hands,” Finch told Canis Hoopus postgame. “Again, the ball got sticky. We tried to play through KAT there, but [Edwards has] got to get some looks. That’s on me.”
Edwards didn’t seem bothered by the approach, because he knows what Towns is capable of.
“That’s just what happened. I ain’t trippin. I’m cool,” Edwards told Canis Hoopus. “Put it in KAT’s hands. I trust him. He did the right thing. That’s going to be good.”
That may have been how Edwards felt in the locker room an hour after the final buzzer sounded, but he knows standing in the corner isn’t a winning recipe.
“We get too comfortable, even myself. I get complacent. I just go to the corner and just sit. I don’t be as aggressive as I am when we need to get the lead. I’m going to take that upon myself,” Edwards said. “No matter what’s going on, if we’re up 25, 35, I’m just going to keep being aggressive and find a way to get the ball, even if it ain’t coming to me. I’m going to find a way.”
The Wolves have plenty of things to sort out that are of greater importance than their end-of-game pecking order, but they can’t neglect it down the stretch of the season. Edwards rightfully became the team’s go-to scorer in big spots in the playoffs last season. But that was with KAT at the 5, something that won’t happen much in closing lineups.
“I like to play with an open court because when I get the rebound, I like to push and get downhill, get fouls, get to the rim as much as possible,” Edwards said. “The smaller we go, the better it is for me.”
And tonight, Edwards did most of his damage in the first and third quarters when Towns and Naz Reid were playing the 5, respectively. The pairing with Gobert will take time, but Edwards is confident.
“It’s the little things,” he explained, before delivering a patented confident answer through a smile. “I’m gonna figure it out. It won’t take long.”
That’s just a microcosm of the Wolves experiencing growing pains as players learn more about one another.
“I mean, honestly, it’s too soon to tell what the personality of this team is going to be right now,” Finch said.
It may be too early to tell, but the Timberwolves can’t use it as an excuse to lose to teams with significantly less talent than them. With their next five games against teams projected to miss the playoffs before the season, we’ll find out quickly what the personality of this team is.
The Wolves will take to the skies tomorrow afternoon to run it back with the Thunder on Sunday night in OKC. You can watch the 7:10 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North.