Fittingly, the Wolves’ path to victory was a rollercoaster ride that took fans through all the emotions — a perfect summation of the team’s first 44 games, through which Minnesota now sits at 22-22.
The Timberwolves, who are seventh in pace, controlled the tempo of the game early on and sped up the league’s slowest offense. Minnesota was very active defensively in their drop coverage; Jaden McDaniels and Co. deflected passes left and right, and ran very well off of stops. As a result, the Cavaliers turned it over five times, and struggled to settle into their offense as both Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland couldn’t find a rhythm.
But that pace made Anthony Edwards feel right at home. Edwards scored 14 points in the opening frame on 6/8 shooting, including three makes at the rim and a pair of 3s. And even when the Timberwolves settled into their half-court offense, they found Rudy Gobert inside for a pair of dunks after he scored made just one bucket last night.
Cleveland flipped the script in the second quarter by playing to their strengths. They slowed down the game, which stalled the Minnesota offense to the tune of zero points in the first 2:46 of the quarter, all while Cleveland turned those stops into a 7-0 run. Taurean Prince responded with a personal 5-0 run to prevent an avalanche, before disaster struck.
Taurean Prince picked up his third foul, and then Gobert went up for a layup and got fouled, but was noticeably experiencing discomfort while grabbing at his right groin. He made both free throws, but asked for a sub 28 seconds later, went back to the locker room and did not return because of what the team called right groin soreness.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the team’s defense was that after their anchor Rudy Gobert left mid-way through the second quarter due to right groin soreness, the intensity level Head Coach Chris Finch’s group came out of the locker room with a renewed sense of pride on the defensive end of the floor.
From there, Minnesota couldn’t stop turning the ball over and Cleveland cashed in with four points off of them to build a nine-point lead, 46-37. But the Wolves fought back once again. Consecutive three-point possessions by way of a take foul and an Edwards’ and-1, a Kyle Anderson and-1 and a Naz Reid baby hook combined for a 10-0 Timberwolves run to re-take a 47-46 lead. After a late burst, the Cavs entered halftime with a five-point lead.
I started writing the recap after the first 2:37 of the third quarter, during which McDaniels picked up his fourth and fifth fouls. No. 5 was certainly questionable enough for Finch to challenge, since it wouldn’t been an and-1, but he declined. Cleveland proceeded to score the game’s next 10 points and take a game-high 14-point lead with 8:23 left in the third.
Then, the energy shifted.
Reid levitated and detonated all over Jarrett Allen to inject life back into a crowd that was eager to will their team back into the game. Austin Rivers then hit a massive 3, dimed up Reid, and helped get a stop that resulted in a transition 3 for Edwards on the other end.
Cleveland needed a damn timeout.
The Wolves then stepped up their defense in a major way, all while playing without their two All-Defensive Team caliber studs in McDaniels and Gobert. After getting crushed by empty side pick-and-roll in the first half, Prince and Edwards were incredible in the low-man help spot, while Reid was phenomenal in defending the rim when bigs got inside.
Allen and Evan Mobley combined for six points on 1/4 shooting in the third quarter, during which the Cavs shot 4/9 in the paint and scored only 16 points in live-ball situations. Rivers and Russell held their own on the perimeter, too, as Mitchell didn’t score and Garland was limited to five points over 8:15 of play. Minnesota played drop, switched, and deployed the good ol’ high wall over the course of their impressive effort.
Chris Finch on finding a schematic defensive identity:— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) January 15, 2023
“We’ve said from the beginning, one of the keys for us is our ability to play different defenses. It took us a long time to find a foundation of our defense, and now we feel more comfortable toggling back and forth."
Finch also deserves credit for pressing the right buttons at the right time. He subbed out Reid and Russell for Luka Garza and Jaylen Nowell with 3:45 to go in the frame and Minnesota trailing by five, 72-67. Both made a huge impact.
Garza immediately grabbed an offensive rebound and assisted on a big Prince dunk, then blocked Kevin Love on the other end. Nowell then made his imprint with a layup in transition and later made a patented little five-footer, before Garza followed suit with one of his own on the final offensive possession of the quarter. The pair combined for six points, two rebounds, an assist and a block in the final 3:45 of the quarter.
Trailing by just three, 80-77, entering the final frame, Finch let it ride. He inserted Anderson for Edwards (who played the entire third), grabbed his popcorn, and watched the show begin.
Garza tied the game with that banger 3 to blow the roof off of Target Center, but didn’t stop there. The two-time Wooden Award winner at Iowa came right back down with another score on the next trip to cap off a 29-13 Wolves run over 9:51 of game time to retake an 82-80 lead with 10:15 left. Garza added another jumper after a classic Rivers attack from the corner before Nowell made the two biggest plays of the game to that point.
That play also kept him on the floor for the rest of the game; Nowell played the final 15:45.
Chris Finch said postgame that he had D'Angelo Russell set to check in for Jaylen Nowell middle of the 4th. But after Nowell got an and-1, DLo looked at him asking if he still wanted him to get him, and he told DLo "let's roll with it" -- which meant leaving DLo on the bench. https://t.co/bEtGacccJ8— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) January 15, 2023
That first unit of Rivers, Nowell, Prince, Anderson and Garza netted a +7 in 3:34 of play and built a five-point lead all while Edwards and McDaniels were on the bench and Gobert was in the locker room.
Finch then decided to roll the dice and put McDaniels back in there to guard Mitchell when play resumed after Cavs Head Coach JB Bickerstaff called a much-needed timeout. And boy did that pay off.
McDaniels stole a Mitchell pass on his second defensive trip (Cleveland’s fifth of the quarter) and paid it off himself on the other end. The third-year rising star then drained a monster 3 to extend the Timberwolves lead to eight moments later, and followed it up by assisting on a Reid triple at the 5:13 mark that seemingly destroyed any ounce of fight the Cavs had left in them.
The best part? Minnesota did all of that work without Edwards needing to put the team on his back on the second night of a back-to-back set at home. The Timberwolves killed the Cavs 56-27 in bench scoring as a result.
An incredible display of scoring in support of Anthony Edwards here in the fourth:— Canis Hoopus (@canishoopus) January 15, 2023
• Jaylen Nowell: 8
• Luka Garza: 7
• Jaden McDaniels: 5
• Austin Rivers: 4
All before Ant has scored and it has ballooned the Wolves' lead up to 8 late with under 5:00 to play
Edwards went on to finish with a game-high 26 points on 10/18 shooting, seven assists, and six rebounds in 35 minutes of play.
The Wolves played excellent defense down the stretch, allowing just 12 points over the final 6:38. Perhaps most encouragingly, they did so while throwing different looks at a dynamic Cavs offense yet again. Even without an other-worldly defender in Gobert, this team displayed a cohesion, collective passion and attention to detail it hadn’t yet on the defensive end this season. Minnesota forced 18 turnovers that they converted into 28 points.
Between Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, Russell, Nowell, McDaniels, Prince and even Anderson and Gobert, this team has plenty of offensive firepower to win games consistently. But tonight they seemed to realize in real time that they are at their most dominant when they win games on the defensive end of the floor.
After the Cavs took that 67-53 lead at the 8:06 mark of the third, Minnesota held them to 35 points on 13/31 shooting (42%) and turned Cleveland over nine times en route to a 57-35 close. That’s utterly dominant basketball. And they did it without the pillar that was supposed to be heartbeat of their defensive resurgence.
Anthony Edwards said the attitude was very different in tonight's game. Asked him what went into that attitude showing up... pic.twitter.com/yIPsbDjHGN— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) January 15, 2023
When you give Anthony Edwards some dogs and Naz Reid is playing with force, the Wolves play with a resoundingly positive, underdog mentality that fuels impressive stretches of winning basketball. It’s further proof not only that this team will go as far as Edwards can propel them, but that they believe they can win any game that A1 suits up for.
The Wolves will take the floor at Target Center on Monday at 3 PM CT to take on the Utah Jazz in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day across the NBA.