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Wolves 121, Suns 116: Five Observations From a Needed Win

Jaden McDaniels’ six assists, Rudy Gobert’s stellar defense, and Anthony Edwards’ second half eruption powered the Timberwolves past the ailing Suns.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Minnesota Timberwolves Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, you just need a wild card willing to cut the brakes and make sure the car barrels full steam ahead to the finish line.

Unfortunately for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Charlie Day is not on the roster, and they coasted rather aggressively into a 121-116 win over the Phoenix Suns whose final score doesn’t accurately reflect the play of the two teams throughout the night.

Instead of a traditional recap, we’re switching it up with five observations from a fun Friday night at Target Center, starting with that crawl to the finish line.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Minnesota Timberwolves Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

1) Pour one out for Wolves -6.5 bettors

Given that Phoenix was without *clears throat, checks notes* Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Cameron Johnson, Cam Payne and Landry Shamet, the traditional result of this game was decided midway through the third quarter when the Wolves’ lead climbed north of 20.

But the highest percentage 3-point shooter in the Curry family this year, Damion Lee (48.5%), did not care. Steph and Seth’s brother-in-law absolutely cooked the Minnesota defense for 26 points in the second half, including 5/6 shooting from beyond the arc and 5/5 from the charity stripe.

Lee hit a pair of back-to-back 3s to get going in the fourth that prompted Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch to call timeout, but that didn’t stop Lee, his second half running mate Saben Lee, or Minnesota’s rather repugnant shot selection, turnovers, and perimeter defense.

“Obviously we didn’t finish very strong. It’s something that we got to get better at. You know, really good teams never get bored of doing the same thing over and over again. We’ve had a habit all season of building the lead and kind of hijacking our momentum with bad shots and turnovers that lead to crazy offense for our opponents,” Finch said postgame. “Tonight was a classic example of that. But, you know, for the most part, I thought we did things well for 80% of the game.”

That 80% did not cover the final possession.

Bally Sports North color analyst Jim Petersen called it a bad beat, but that may not even be doing it justice.

Phoenix closed on a 35-18 run over the final 9:01 to cover the 6.5-point spread, as Lee set a new career high of 31 points, matching Anthony Edwards’ 31 for a share of the game high.

Phoenix Suns v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

2) Jaden McDaniels’ playmaking growth is staggering

As my guy Aidan Berg wrote fabulously about on Canis yesterday, Jaden McDaniels’ playmaking evolution is becoming more and more evident as his confidence on the ball continues to grow.

McDaniels scored 14 points on 5/10 shooting, grabbed five rebounds, once again recorded at least one block and one steal, and recorded a game-high +13, but his six assists are what grabbed my attention tonight. That’s the second-best mark of his NBA career and one shy of his high mark of seven. No one who has been watching this team closely should be surprised if he sets a new career-high in between now and the All-Star break.

Here’s a look at his assist breakdown tonight:

Stats courtesy of NBA Courtside

It’s rare than an off-ball player can create plays for others at all three levels of the floor, but that’s what McDaniels accomplished in his 36 minutes on Friday night.

“He’s nice, man. I tell him every day. Just be yourself,” Edwards told Canis Hoopus in the locker room. “I’m super excited for him, just because he’s just playing out there and he ain’t thinking about nothing.”

He’s fantastic at getting the ball to the middle of the floor and looking for shooters on the opposite wing. Three of his six assists were on made 3s. One of them was a one-handed, right arm rocket out of the corner to Taurean Prince on the opposite wing for 3; another to Prince was a left-handed skip pass for a 3; and finally, he made this stellar pass in transition to help spark Edwards’ 20-point second half.

“From when I first got here, I always thought he had playmaking skills. And it’s just about creating the opportunities for him to do that. I think he’s really best when he’s like attacking a close-out, and in space he can see. He’s done a really good job of finding Rudy a lot. He’s a good interior passer,” Finch told Canis Hoopus postgame. “But yeah, again, it’s just all resulted from playing with great ball movement. And we didn’t have a great ball move down the stretch. But through most of the night we did, and he was able to like take advantage of that.”

As McDaniels continues to gain more confidence attacking off the dribble against over-aggressive close-outs or in transition, he’ll encounter more situations to scan the floor, make quick decisions and deliver accurate passes to his teammates.

Austin Rivers has been impressed with McDaniels’ continued development.

“He just keeps getting better at everything. His talent is so untapped. His ceiling is just as high as Ant’s. I know that sounds crazy, but like just the stuff you see Jaden do, he’s so gifted,” Rivers told Canis Hoopus in the locker room. “It’s really good to see him getting the dribble, the drive, showing his versatility, his size. Being able to score off the dribble, midrange, three-point, he’s obviously super athletic. Running in transition. He does a little bit of everything. Keep going.”

Rivers isn’t a bullshitter. He doesn’t blow smoke up the chimney. He’s seen a lot of great players throughout his 10 years in the league, including Chris Paul, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokić, Jrue Holiday, Aaron Gordon, and Robert Covington, to name a few. If Rivers thinks McDaniels’ ceiling matches that of Edwards, he means it.

And if Edwards and McDaniels both reach that ceiling... the Wolves will be a perennial playoff team for a long, long time.

Phoenix Suns v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

3) Josh Okogie forever

There are so many different greats to choose from. Kevin Garnett, Karl-Anthony Towns, Edwards, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Peković, etc. But Josh Okogie just may be my favorite Timberwolf of all-time.

No one in the NBA creates chaos like Okogie, or appears to have as much fun doing it as the human tornado with springs for legs and launch pads for feet. Tonight, one of the most beloved Wolves in recent memory returned to Target Center for the second time since leaving the team in free agency last summer after spending his first four NBA seasons in Minneapolis.

Back in the rotation, Okogie went on an incredible run during his first stint, wreaking havoc on any sense of normalcy the game had:

  • Grabbed an offensive rebound resulting in a Mikal Bridges 3
  • Got out of control on the drive and ran over Taurean Prince for a charge
  • Took a wild layup after stealing a pass from Naz Reid
  • Traveled
  • Played incredible defense for a string of possessions including some awesome contests at the rim
  • Made a 3
  • And did this:

This camera angle may not do it justice. But from my view on media row (off the screen to the right), it was a tremendous display of athleticism and touch that Okogie is capable of combining to create the art we all know and love.

Okogie finished with seven points, three rebounds, a steal and a block in 20 minutes, in which he registered a +1, just one of four suns to be a positive on the night.

The 2018 first-round pick always represented the Timberwolves organization with class, became a leader in the Greater Minneapolis community, treated everyone he came across with love and respect, and constantly celebrated his teammates on the bench no matter what his role is. While Okogie had his detractors, I’ll always think of Okogie’s time in Minnesota as a huge positive.

His highs were incredibly fun, he led a well-loved bench mob, and he was a fabulous leader for young players on the team to follow. I’ll always be a believer. Josh Okogie forever.

Phoenix Suns v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

4) Gobert is honing in on consistently dominating with defense

Rudy Gobert took only one shot in the Wolves’ win — a breakaway dunk in transition — but he didn’t let that affect his outstanding defense on the other end.

“I don’t worry about it too much. Rudy gets paid to block shots, rebound. We stress finding him in the flow all the time. We’ve done a better job of it. You know, sometimes it’s going to be that way,” Finch said postgame.

Finch said he thinks Gobert’s unselfish play sets a tone for the three-time All-Star’s teammates to sacrifice when needed.

“I think Rudy’s a very selfless player, like he’s a team guy. He knows, who he is, what he is here for, and what he’s best at, you know?” Finch added. “And I mean, last time, I think there was a game maybe he didn’t take any shots, right? And then I think he dunked like three of the four next possessions to start the Indiana game. I’m not worried about it.”

The three-time Defensive Player of the Year held Suns center Deandre Ayton to 11 points on 5/18 shooting (including 0-9 in the second quarter alone). Ayton looked like he wanted to go home after halftime, and honestly I can’t blame him. Phoenix is a hell of a lot better than Minneapolis this time of year.

Since the Timberwolves’ players only meeting following a loss on New Year’s Eve, Gobert has brought a palpable, renewed defensive intensity that is growing by the game. Suns players actively avoided going in the paint in the first half because Gobert made a habit of contesting seemingly every single shot inside.

“Rudy’s a great pro. He keeps playing, and tonight I thought he did a great job of just really quarterbacking our defense.”

Gobert finished the night with 4 points, 12 rebounds, an assist, but also recorded four steals and a block. In six games since the turn of the new year, Gobert is one of four players league-wide to record at least 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks per game.

Say what you wish about the Stifle Tower’s debut season in Minnesota, but you better make sure it touches on the fact that this team allows 7.8 fewer points per 100 possessions while he’s on the floor — good for the 95th percentile (per Cleaning the Glass) and on par with his Utah numbers — just as Wolves fans hoped when they attempted to talk themselves into the trade last July.

Phoenix Suns v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

5) All Anthony Edwards needs is a spark

The Timberwolves third-year star mixes a terrifying blend of power, speed, finesse and flair to create a punch bowl drink that opposing defenses can’t stomach when he finds a rhythm.

And he’s starting to find that rhythm more consistently. Edwards averaged 25.3 points on 46.7/40.6/70.4 shooting splits with 6.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists in December and has built upon that nicely in December with two games of at least 29 points and a pair of 20-plus-point performances in the new year entering tonight.

Edwards added to that with a 31-point, six-rebound, three-assist, two-steal performance across a team-high 37 minutes on Friday. The 2020 No. 1 overall pick scored just 11 points in the first half and failed to connect on any of his three 3-point attempts. But he didn’t turn the ball over, dished out three dimes, and made two steals on consecutive possessions that resulted in great looks from 3.

Then, he showcased his explosive scoring talent out of the break. The Wolves came out flat in the first couple minutes, but then a massive McDaniels block in transition breathed new life into an anxious crowd, which presented a moment for Edwards to seize. Naturally, he did.

The aforementioned assist from McDaniels set Edwards off and running with a made 3 and a smile on his face, before D’Angelo Russell asked the arena to prepare for takeoff.

Mix in a pair of isolation scores and you’ve got yourself a nice little nine-point quarter to help put out of reach a team decimated by injuries. Edwards added three more makes in the fourth, including a triple and two late takes to the rim to cement the result on the scoreboard.

Edwards is becoming an every night player who shows up to take the floor and battle alongside his teammates no matter what. Does he want to set a tone that he’s going to be there ready to go to war every night?

“Yeah, for sure. Most definitely. That’s what I’m trying to do and I’m going to keep doing it,” Edwards said in the locker room.

Those in the Timberwolves locker room have taken notice.

“Yeah, it just sets a tone like this dude’s invested. He’s here. This guy’s playing through injuries, no matter. The Houston game, a lot of guys would just sit out, like, ‘Hey, we’ll win without him,’” Rivers said. “But Ant came out there and really showed us. When your best player is that invested, it means a lot. I think he sets a tone.”

The young star’s nightly efforts will hopefully land him a debut spot in next month’s All-Star Game, but he’s not focused on that.

“Me personally, yeah I feel like I’m an All-Star. But I guess a lot of people don’t. That’s cool. I ain’t trippin, man. I just want to get to the playoffs. I don’t really care,” Edwards said. “As long as we get to the playoffs, I don’t care how we do it. Long as we get there, 8 seed, 7 seed, 6 seed, I don’t care how we do it. As long as we get there, that’s all I care about.”

Next Up

The Wolves have a tight turnaround as they’ll host the Cleveland Cavaliers at Target Center tonight at 7 PM CT in what will be homecoming game for Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio.

Game Highlights