“You know it,” Minnesota Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards told Ja Morant’s father, Tee, after getting Morant ejected late in the fourth quarter of his his team’s 109-101 victory over Morant’s Memphis Grizzlies.
Edwards earned the right to talk his trash after leading the Timberwolves to a monster victory in their first game playing without Karl-Anthony Towns (right calf strain). The third-year guard saved his best for last and scored 17 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter after being held scoreless in the third.
Eight of those 17 came after Dillon Brooks poked the bear while the Wolves led by three at the 3:13 mark of the fourth. Brooks fouled Edwards across the face and had some words for him afterwards. Double technical fouls were issued.
Anthony Edwards wasn't a fan of Dillon Brooks hitting him in the face pic.twitter.com/6aCysjQmsr— Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) December 1, 2022
Edwards proceeded to completely pick apart the Grizzlies from there on out. On the very next play, he took Brooks off the dribble and scored at the rim. After a defensive stop, Edwards handled the ball in the half-court with Brooks guarding him; he got by Brooks, drew in Rudy Gobert’s defender and threw a lob up top to Gobert for a monster jam that secured the Timberwolves a seven-point lead and all the momentum. While the crowd roared, Brooks spent half of the Grizzlies’ timeout complaining to the officials that Edwards pushed off.
“You’ve got to reward Big Fella,” Edwards told Canis Hoopus in the locker room. “He do all the screening, all the hard work, you know? It was a clutch moment, so I saw him. I just threw it.”
Brooks then came down, as any villain would, and tried to answer back with a big shot of his own. After Kyle Anderson grabbed a rebound, he threw one of his several incredible outlet passes to Edwards for a layup. Then, Edwards grabbed a defensive rebound before getting fouled by Brooks, who continued to take his case up with the officials while Edwards jawed at him. The officials replied by sending Brooks for an early shower, much to Ant’s delight.
Morant then decided to get in on the action, earning a technical and an ejection after Edwards sank the free throw. But instead of riling up the crowd to send off Morant, Edwards dapped up the All-Star before sharing some words with Morant’s father.
“It’s energy. When he plays with great energy, it pulsates through our guys. He makes big plays, he makes plays that can swing a game,” Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch said after the win. “He’s always had a great sense of timing, and I thought tonight he did a good job of not settling and keeping the pressure on.”
Even during a scoreless third, he kept his foot on the gas; Edwards dished out three assists without turning it over, stole the ball three times, and blocked a shot, too. Then, when winning time came, Edwards answered the call.
“It could be one of his most complete games he’s played since I’ve been with him – every facet. He made the big plays, he made the little plays, he played all the way through the game,” Finch said postgame. “He really imposed himself offensively and defensively, gave us great life.”
Finch added that Edwards’ performance tonight is an extension of Ant’s growing leadership role in the locker room.
“His voice in the locker room is growing and growing, and it’s great to see and much needed for this team. He’s got it in him,” Finch explained. “He’s an extremely likable teammate. Everyone believes that when you have him on the floor, he’s going to do great things and now he’s learning how to back it up with some words to help his teammates as well.”
Edwards was quick to credit his veteran teammates for helping him grow in that crucial area as the team enters a time it will need him more than ever.
“Guys like Austin (Rivers), Taurean (Prince), Slo-Mo, just helping me in that aspect, as far as when to say stuff, when not to say stuff, saying the right things, stuff like that,” Edwards said.
The night belonged to Anthony Edwards, and it is trending towards the locker room being his, as well. That’s not a slight to Towns, or anyone else, but if your tone-setter and main source of energy also becomes your best leader, good things follow.
Let’s get to some key observations from arguably the team’s biggest win of the season.
Welcome to the Show, Wendell Moore Jr.
After Jaden McDaniels (illness) was scratched minutes before tip-off on Wednesday night, Finch made the surprising decision to put Minnesota’s 2022 first-round pick, Wendell Moore Jr., into the starting lineup after Moore hadn’t played rotation minutes at all prior to the game.
“I was definitely surprised. Literally happened like 10 minutes prior to our pregame meeting,” Moore said about being told he would start. “I just wanted to do whatever I can to help our team win.”
Not only did he start, but he took on the assignment of guarding an All-Star point guard and arguably the toughest perimeter cover in the entire league.
“We kind of wrestled with a lot of different ways we could go when Jaden was a great late scratch, but the reality was we wanted somebody who could give us good defense,” Finch explained postgame. “He was great. I thought he was really, really good. Solid, took the challenge, kept him contained, got off to a good start defensively.”
Moore got right to work, helping to force Morant into four first quarter turnovers and only two points while guarding him.
“I just studied the scouting report. Our staff does a great job of breaking every player down, their tendencies. I had already been watching film the past couple days,” the rookie explained. “I was trying to pick up on his tendencies anyway and really just following the game plan that coaches gave me along with the confidence my teammates had in me.”
“I thought I held myself pretty well tonight.”
Beyond that, the rookie corralled three rebounds, dished out two dimes to create six points during a drought at the start of the game, and didn’t turn the ball over. Coming out of the locker room at halftime, he combined with Russell to score nine of the team’s first 15 points of the quarter.
“I think we got all the energy from the rookie tonight, Wendell Moore, man. Huge impact tonight. All credit goes to him,” Edwards said in the locker room.
Excellent on-ball defense from Wendell Moore Jr. on Ja Morant leads to the Anthony Edwards steal + Rudy Gobert transition dunk pic.twitter.com/O14G7v5asf— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) December 1, 2022
Even when Moore isn’t playing, he locks in on studying his opponents on film and with numbers.
“You never know when your time is going to come. For me, I just always want to be ready. My teammates are telling me, I got great vets in Kyle, DLo, Ant, even though we’re the same age, I still look at him like a big brother here. Nate, Naz, Bryn, TP, everybody in this locker room just has supreme confidence in me. That allows me to go out there and just play free and be myself.”
Sixth Man Supreme
Finch kept Jaylen Nowell out of the starting lineup so his Sixth Man microwave could do what he does best: give everyone buckets.
After producing 23 points on 9/13 shooting in the Wolves’ loss to the Washington Wizards on Monday, Nowell poured in 24 more tonight, displaying his aggressive scoring mentality.
Plenty of Nowell’s scoring chances arose from Finch and the Timberwolves opting to run more spread pick-and-roll, the primary offensive action that Gobert ran as a member of the Utah Jazz. As the pick-and-roll frequency figures to increase with Towns out as a means of optimizing Gobert’s offensive impact, it makes sense that Nowell gets more playing time even when Jordan McLaughlin (left calf strain) returns.
Jaylen Nowell PnR side-step 3, wow pic.twitter.com/GvAZj7ONUI— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) December 1, 2022
The 2019 Pac-12 Player of the Year is an extremely polished scorer, especially when he plays in pick-and-roll. A good decision-maker, Nowell is also more than capable of reading the floor, dictating the defense’s reaction and making the right play from there.
“The corner was open a lot today. When I’m handling it and just coming down, I feel like I had every option today. Get to the rim. The roller and the corner pass, even behind to the top of the key pass. I felt like every single option was open and I think we executed very well,” Nowell explained.
“Whenever everyone touches the ball, it’s a different feeling. A different feeling. It’s a feeling of togetherness,” Gobert said on the team’s unselfish nature making the right reads. “And when we go to war together, we defend together, and offensively we make the right play, like I said, we’re a really, really tough team to beat.”
Nowell also benefitted as a shooter because those corners opened up. He connected on four of his 10 3-point attempts, a career-high in fires from beyond the arc. It should come as no surprise that he is shooting better as he gets more consistent run.
“I think just playing the consistent minutes and mentally, being able to take these shots helps a lot, too. So, definitely just continuing to put the work in and just put ‘em up,” Nowell told Canis Hoopus. “Just having the confidence to continue to put them up even when some miss. Just knowing that they’re eventually going to fall.”
The Wolves need a player with that mentality given that far too often their offense stalls and they need someone to simply go get a bucket.
“[He] helps us tremendously, because we know when we ain’t got nothing we can give him the ball and he can go get a bucket,” Edwards said of Nowell postgame. “He brings scoring to the team like in bunches, too. Like he can score 10 points in 30 seconds.”
Whether it was making spot-up 3s, attacking in isolation, or finishing in transition, Nowell continues to show why he’s such a dangerous offensive player and make an argument for major minutes in Minnesota’s rotation, especially alongside Gobert. Finch entrusted him with playing the entire fourth quarter in a tight game as a result.
The Slow-Mo Game
Kyle Anderson had his fingerprints all over this game from start to finish.
Grizzlies Head Coach Taylor Jenkins clearly wanted to work the ball to Jaren Jackson Jr. so that Jackson Jr. could take advantage of a perceived mismatch against his former teammate. Instead, Anderson frustrated Jackson Jr. throughout the entire game, drawing three of Jackson Jr.’s five fouls and forcing most of the Memphis star’s four turnovers.
But where Anderson perhaps made his biggest impact was in transition. The nine-year NBA veteran threw countless incredible outlet passes that turned the team’s stops into opportunities to attack a stellar Grizzlies defense before it could get set.
“He rebounds, he pushes. He’s a great passer, quick decision maker. He was really, really great for us tonight,” Finch told Canis Hoopus.
Rudy Gobert lob dunk, assisted by Kyle Anderson pic.twitter.com/bToID1o1xC— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) December 1, 2022
The 6-foot-9 swingman also played point guard for stretches while Russell rested on the bench. That helped alleviate the pressure on Edwards to create both as a scorer and play initiator for the entire offense.
“We put a lot of ATO reads into his hands coming out of timeouts, he found the right guy all the time,” Finch added.
Anderson stuffed the stat sheet with 10 points, six rebounds, five assists, one turnover, a steal and a block in 39 minutes, second-most on the team behind only Edwards. It’s hard to find many better complementary players than Slow-Mo, whom the Wolves will rely on heavily over the next month and change without Towns.
He also stuck around to get in on the postgame interview.
what is going on here pic.twitter.com/RTJ9KdCRmA— CJ Fogler AKA Perc70 #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) December 1, 2022
Finch Still Has His Fastball
The Timberwolves’ second (and a half)-year coach has deservedly shared blame for the team’s slow start. Given all the talent the Wolves have, they should be much better than their 11-11 record even with the context of not having Towns or Gobert at 100% for much of the first quarter of the season. Finch hasn’t tinkered much with the rotations, defensive scheme, and has largely been unable to help his players put together strong performances on a consistent basis.
But on Wednesday night, Finch put together by far his best coaching performance of the young season.
First, the decision Finch made to start Moore Jr. over Nowell or Naz Reid turned out to be a wonderful out-of-left-field decision given how well all three played in their respective roles.
Next, he threw plenty of different looks at Morant and the Grizzlies. To start things out, Finch positioned his players to play a “boxes and elbows” defense — sagging off shooters to pack the paint and prevent looks and shut off drivers. Nowell credited that strategy for the Timberwolves forcing 27 turnovers, the Grizzlies’ most in a game in over 15 years.
“One thing we know we were talking about even at halftime, how consistently we were with being in the gaps. As guys are driving, we were in the gaps very well today and we got a lot of pokes when they’re attacking,” he explained. “So, I think things like that and just our rotations, I think we got a couple steals off that. But I say the number one thing is being in the gaps when guys are driving.”
After Gobert got into foul trouble early, Minnesota’s defense became ultra-aggressive while Reid held down the fort with Gobert in early foul trouble. Finch pivoted to the team’s high wall concept, the team’s base defense in 2021-22. The Timberwolves found great success slowing down Morant with the high wall scheme, but that was with McDaniels at the point of attack and Towns guarding the big man at the level of the screen. Tonight, they got it done with Austin Rivers and Edwards at the point of attack and Reid playing at the level.
“I thought we were outstanding in our shell defense tonight. We were back in our high wall at times, which created a bit more fly around,” Finch said. “We’ve been working a little bit more on that the last few days, just getting those habits back and being more aggressive.”
Most importantly, the move activated Edwards and Reid to play their most engaged defense of the entire season. The wrecking ball tandem combined for six steals and eight blocks across their 62 combined minutes. And that’s not counting how many altered shots and box outs they produced, too.
“It allows us to get going, because sometimes we might be in a drop and I might just be ball-watching and get cut backdoor,” Edwards said in the locker room of playing drop vs the high wall concept. “But if I know we’re in a wall, I know we’ve got rotations to make. We’ve got to be on the fly. We can’t be stopping and going. We’ve just got to keep going. So it’s dope.”
The Timberwolves toggled between the high wall and drop coverage in the fourth quarter with Gobert out there, too. The five-time Defensive Player of the Year was very pleased with the results.
“I think we’re just doing what we do, we just did it better,” Gobert said in the locker room postgame. “When we’re a little more aggressive on the ball, it doesn’t really matter what scheme we use. If you can guard on your man and if I can protect the rim and if you get those rebounds, we’re gonna be in good position.”
Whether Finch is allowing him to go crazy with the ball in his hands in the fourth quarter or calling out defensive coverages, Edwards has ultimate trust in his head coach.
“Whatever Finchy wants throughout the game, that’s what we’re going to do. We go as he goes. So whatever he calls, that’s what we in.”
The Timberwolves welcome the Oklahoma City Thunder to Target Center on Saturday night at 7 PM CT. Fans can watch the game on Bally Sports North.
that was fun.— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) December 1, 2022
Ant - 29 PTS / 3 REB / 5 AST / 3 BLK / 5 STL
Jaylen - 24 PTS / 5 REB / 2 AST / 2 STL
DLo - 15 PTS / 5 REB / 10 AST / 2 STL
Slowmo - 10 PTS / 6 REB / 5 AST / 1 BLK / 1 STL
Wendell - 7 PTS / 3 REB / 2 AST / 1 BLK / 1 STL pic.twitter.com/kzNQZ2SwqE