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Wolves 134, Spurs 122: In Scoring Trouble? Better Call Jaylen

Minnesota’s bench microwave poured in 15 second half points on 7/8 shooting to hold serve so the starters could close out a frisky San Antonio squad.

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San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards took responsibility for his team’s lack of energy in a disappointing loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night, before ending his answer with five words and a patented Ant smile.

“I’ll be better. Trust me.”

It didn’t take long for Edwards to make good on that statement.

The ascending star confidently drained a 3-pointer to begin the scoring just 20 seconds into the game, before doubling that opening lead — and his total made 3s from Monday’s loss — with another triple just 32 seconds later. Better he was, right from the tip.

The Spurs, playing without injured key guards Devin Vassell and Joshua Primo, loaded up on Edwards (put more defenders on the side of the floor Ant had the ball) in an effort take away his driving ability. That didn’t bother him.

“San Antonio goes under all my ball screens, all my flare screens. I told myself any time they go under, I’m shooting it every time. It worked out tonight,” he explained, nodding his head.

It’s part of an exciting growth curve we’re all seeing play out in front of our eyes. Edwards isn’t just playing the game. He’s thinking it, reading it, and reacting to it in real time — a massive leap from his sophomore season. That leap is something Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch hoped would happen this year.

Now, defenses are switching more to in aims of keep him in front — but he sees it coming.

“The first couple times I come out, I kind of just play, like get off the ball, see what they doing,” Edwards said in the locker room after the game. “Then later in the first, that’s when I started to be aggressive once I realize, ‘OK they switching I’mma play off the catch. They can’t stop me now.’ So I kind of just read the game.”

A key part of that is understanding when to get off the ball, too. After his first pair of makes, he put the ball on the deck with the intention of drawing in defenders before kicking the ball back out to Jaden McDaniels in the slot for an open 3; that was the first of three made 3s Edwards created for others in the first. His playmaking got both McDaniels and Jaylen Nowell in a rhythm early, as both Seattle natives scored first quarter eight points on 3/3 shooting.

San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Edwards went on to make five 3-pointers in the period, with McDaniels and Nowell each adding a couple of their own and Taurean Prince joining the fun, too. Those 10 3s broke a franchise record for most 3s in a first quarter.

The young phenom created 27 of the team’s 39 first quarter points between his scoring and assisting, setting a dominant yet unselfish tone for the game. Edwards scored 16 in the first en route to his third game in six nights scoring north of 30 points.

Helping Edwards establish a rhythm and a flow early in the game is an essential line in the job description for both Finch and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Finch did his part by running out the “Iowa spacing” five with Jordan McLaughlin, Nowell, Edwards, Prince, and Naz Reid to close out the first quarter. The lineup features excellent ball movement, good spacing, a point guard who can collapse and kick, and two dynamite perimeter scorers — an environment tailor-made for Edwards to thrive in. Minnesota won their minutes 4-0.

After the doing the equivalent of a boxer feeling out the opponent from a scoring perspective for the first 12 minutes, Towns’ ball movement was essential for creating flow in the offense. His best moments came passing in post-ups, out of which he dropped five of his seven dimes.

San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Last season, Towns struggled to repeatedly make defenses pay for doubling him in the post because he would force shots or passes that weren’t there instead of quickly making the correct read. Often times it mirrored hitting a single; Towns too frequently opted to swing for the fences, which resulted in bad turnovers, offensive fouls, and frustration that took him out of games.

Now, the three-time All-Star is going to the post to create for others.

“Even for me, in the beginning, a big point of emphasis for me was really being not look to shoot but more just to pass. Just to get that flow going, getting our ball movement going, getting everyone touching the ball,” Towns said.

The acquired poise he has displayed this season will be an antidote for a defensive scheme that plagued the Wolves in the playoffs.

“Yeah, it’s something we’ve talked to him about a lot,” Finch said postgame. “He’s extremely coachable, and he trusts his teammates, and he’s wired to do things that it takes to win. So, yeah, I thought it was a really, really mature performance from all the way around.”

Increased activity from his teammates while he’s on the block is a factor in the growth he’s shown, too.

“I just think it’s helping the guys cutting the way we cutting right now. It gives me a chance to utilize my passing,” he told Canis Hoopus. “I think it’s all my teammates, just the way they trust me and the way they give me a chance to make those plays.”

That benefitted McDaniels as a scorer tonight, too. Towns set up for two of the versatile swingman’s four dunks tonight en route to another double-digit scoring outing for McDaniels, whose complementary skills enable him to break defenses when they are able to successfully defend his All-Star caliber teammates.

Towns not only got others in the flow early with his passing, but it also made clear the path for him to take as a scorer. He efficiently dropped nine points in the second period, scoring at all three levels of the defense. Most importantly, he didn’t turn it over.

While Edwards and Towns got the Wolves out to a double-digit lead early, San Antonio kept firing away from downtown to stay in it. Josh Richardson, Keldon Johnson and Apple Valley native Tre Jones all added momentum-killing 3s to prevent the game from getting away from the Spurs before the half. That, coupled with an 2-3 zone early in the frame, helped Gregg Popovich’s injury stay in it before Russell, Towns and McDaniels ended the half on a 7-2 run that extended the lead to 15, 68-53, at the break.

Coming out of the halftime break, the league’s worst third quarter team made it tough on themselves once again. A 14-6 Spurs run in the first 2:38 of the frame cut Minnesota’s lead down to seven, 74-67, before Finch called a timeout to rally the troops. His team immediately responded with a 4-0 run, prompting a classic, animated Pop timeout.

The next three minutes were a back-and-forth rock fight featuring physical play, careless Wolves turnovers, and general sloppiness; as they were for much of the team’s first three home games, Wolves faithful was on edge until reinforcements arrived.

McLaughlin picked a wonderful time to pick up Keita Bates-Diop in the back-court, where the feisty backup point guard picked his former teammate’s pocket and scored a layup that warmed up the Target Center crowd for its main act, who entered 14 seconds later.

From the second Jaylen Nowell entered the game in the third quarter, you could tell he wanted the moment.

“100 percent mentality. I never care about who’s guarding me,” Nowell said postgame. “I know that when I can get to my spots, and I could just raise up, it’s just a matter of if I can make it or miss it.”

It didn’t matter who was in front of him or where his teammates were. The court became his dance floor, where he invited any Spur to join him in the middle, ready to earn the roar of the crowd uniquely reserved for his moves.

Doug McDermott was Nowell’s first partner. Butter.

Nowell then smelled blood in the water. He got McDermott leaning before losing him with a right-to-left, behind-the-back crossover that perfectly led into a balanced fadeaway at the right elbow. Cash.

Next trip, the 2019 Pac-12 Player of the Year once again sized up McDermott while McLaughlin set a pin-down screen for Towns, who the transfixed San Antonio defense left wide open behind the arc. That’s too easy for the 3-point champ. Splash.

Because his dancing doesn’t discriminate, Nowell invited to the floor Bates-Diop, who forgot the No. 1 rule of accepting a dance with the iso-king: when the screen comes, don’t go under. Bang.

Three isolations, three different levels of the defense, yet one result — the bottom of the net. And, because Nowell’s a nice guy, he mixed a dime in there, too.

After taking a break to let Edwards drain a couple more 3s himself, Nowell picked up right where he left off at the third quarter buzzer.

How about some new partners?

Zach Collins couldn’t stop KAT when the Big Fella scored 60 last season, so you know he’s not stopping Nowell inside the line. Two more.

Romeo Langford got lost in the sauce before Nowell saw, in the words of Mark Jackson, “Hand down, man down!” Another one in the mid-range.

This time, it prompted a loud chant: “JAY-LEN, JAY-LEN, JAY-LEN”

So what did Nowell do? Like any true performer would, he saved his best for last.

Tim Duncan ain’t walkin’ through that door!

But if he was... you can bet Nowell would be giving him buckets, too.

Nowell tacked fourth quarter eight points onto the seven he dropped in the third, all coming in the midst of San Antonio answering nearly every score with one of their own.

“He’s the best scorer on the team by far. He’s incredible to watch, man,” Edwards said of his electric teammate. “It’s must see TV with him for sure.”

But the Wolves’ bench engine was too much. His 15 points in a 9:04 stretch of high-leverage basketball saved the Wolves and secured a lead that proved to be too much for the Spurs’ starters to overcome in the final 6:24 of the game.

But to say the road here for Nowell has been easy would be inaccurate. Nowell wasn’t afraid to open up about what it’s been like working in silence while awaiting his opportunity to captivate audiences and drive winning like he did tonight.

“Very long. A lot of dark times. Long, dark hallway. Sometimes you don’t see the light,” he said, before explaining what’s in that hallway. “Doubt, frustration, irritation. All type of things. ... When you stick with it, and you just continue to work...good things will happen to those who work and continue to stay positive-minded.”

Finch’s belief in Nowell was a key factor in the franchise’s comfortability with taking such a big swing for Rudy Gobert.

“We told him coming in like ‘The spot is yours, but you still got to win it.’ And he came in with that mentality,” Finch said, alluding to the departed Malik Beasley’s minutes. “He was super engaged all summer. He was in our gym early. He was excited.”

San Antonio Spurs v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

“I didn’t even see him in the summer. You know someone is working when you don’t see them. I didn’t see them at all. I knew what it was, man,” Edwards added. “His training camp was great. Preseason games was great. We knew what he was capable of last year when he wasn’t playing that much. We knew his time would come and he’s always ready. He stayed ready.”

The work is paying off for Nowell, who according to Shams Charania, is “expected to bypass a new deal and enter unrestricted free agency next offseason.”

Day-by-day, the price is going up.