Entering the fourth quarter, the Minnesota Timberwolves held an eight-point lead, 95-87, fresh off a 17-point explosion from Anthony Edwards in response to an 18-6 Utah Jazz run. But while every fan at Target Center was on their feet, riding the high that Edwards creates like few other players in the NBA can, the 21-year-old star went back to the bench to start the fourth.
Instead of rising to the occasion like they did on Saturday night in an epic comeback win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, a blended Wolves lineup came out flat on both ends of the floor and quickly lost momentum. A back-court of D’Angelo Russell and Jaylen Nowell offered minimal ball contain and defensive effort on the perimeter, and Jaden McDaniels picked up his fifth foul away from the ball on offense trying to cut through the lane with 10:11 left.
Minnesota Head Coach Chris Finch let the Russell/Nowell duo play for far too long against a team whose offensive back-court is its biggest strength, in what was his second significant blunder managing the team’s rotations in the second half. The first was waiting too long to pull Luka Garza in the third quarter; Nate Knight finally got the call with 4:23 left in the period and helped fuel an 18-10 Wolves run to close the quarter.
By the time Edwards re-entered with 7:21 left, Utah had scored 17 points on 7/7 shooting and the Timberwolves’ lead was down to four. So, he took it upon himself to make a push. He drained a huge tripe with 5:31 left to give his squad a five-point lead, but Austin Rivers fouled Jordan Clarkson on a 3 on the ensuing trip to kill all momentum. Edwards then drained another 3, but Walker Kessler got behind the Wolves’ high wall defense before the low-man could rotate for a layup.
“I mean, just I think a couple of times in coverage the roller got behind us, there was late low-man. And then you know, on the switches we were getting beaten at the point of attack,” Finch said, explaining his team’s defensive issues. “Probably should have gone to that smaller lineup earlier, to be honest.”
Those were both strengths of the team’s defensive effort on Saturday. Performances like Monday should now be expected from this team; every time it looks like they turn a corner, they backslide into a product that features poor effort, limited cohesion, and a frustrated fan base.
The Jazz offense just kept coming. After the seas parted for an Ochai Agbaji layup with 3:41 to play, Finch called a timeout, perhaps wondering like everyone else in attendance how Utah could possibly start the first 8:19 of the quarter 9/9 from 2, 3/3 from 3, and 2/2 from the free throw line.
Even when the Jazz missed their next shot, Kessler corralled the rebound and put it back — a constant source of offense for Utah in the second half that re-opened old wounds inflicted by the Rudy Gobert trade. So when the Wolves scored again to take a two-point lead on the next possession, can you guess what happened? That’s right, another Kessler put-back to dump a load of salt on those fresh soars.
Every fan in the arena could feel the dam was going to break at some point. Minnesota’s jumper-heavy offense didn’t match the same sustainability of Utah’s diverse attack, and it cost them. Russell missed a wide open 3 and then the dam finally broke, as Utah poured in a 3 from Malik Beasley and a pair of free throws from Agbaji to take a 125-120 lead with 1:21 left.
Then, Rivers rewarded Finch for keeping him out there for the entire quarter. He paid off an offensive rebound from Kyle Anderson with a banger 3 that generated perhaps the loudest eruption of the year in what was a playoff atmosphere in Downtown Minneapolis.
The trusted veteran then clamped Clarkson on the other end to give the Wolves the ball with 21.3 seconds left. Instead of calling a timeout, Finch realized the transition opportunity his team had. As he did all game, Russell went right at Beasley with a hesitation move and blew by him for a layup to tie it up.
After a terrible officiating crew rewarded a flop from Clarkson (who was frustrated that Rivers was successfully hounding him), Minnesota had one last chance.
“Finchy drew up a great play for me to catch it and have space. I had space. I beat him going right and I saw Jaden wide open in the corner,” Edwards said postgame about what he saw on the last play. “He shoots those, he makes those shots. I see him work on them all day in practice. If I had another chance to throw it to him, I’d throw it to him again.”
It would’ve been a great redemption shot for McDaniels, who struggled all game with foul trouble, but it didn’t fall, and the Wolves dropped back below .500 to 22-23. Minnesota ended up allowing 39 points on 15/18 shooting (83.3%).
The fourth quarter was the story of the night, without a doubt, but there were a few fun storylines to monitor throughout the game, starting with 2022 Wolves draftee Walker Kessler.
Walker Kessler Shines in His Best Game as a Pro
As if losing to a Jazz team without its starting front-court of All-Star-to-be Lauri Markkanen and Keelly Olynyk was bad enough, Monday became a nightmare scenario for Wolves fans that can’t get past the Gobert trade. Kessler, the youngest of the five players that Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations sent to the Jazz, was the best player on the floor for the majority of the game.
He scored 20 points on 9/13 shooting, grabbed 21 rebounds (nine offensive), assisted on four buckets, and blocked two shots. Most notably, Kessler dominated the third quarter on both ends of the floor in order to turn the tide for the Jazz and keep the Wolves from running away with it. The former Auburn star scored eight points (six off put-backs), corralled seven rebounds (three offensive), dished two dimes, and contested a bevy of shots at the rim.
“Yeah, he does a good job,” Finch said of the player he was once ecstatic to draft. “He’s you know, a historically great collegiate rim protector. Looks like it’s transferring here. Did a good job on the glass, as well.”
Edwards made sure to get him back though. He went right at Kessler for three straight scores in the third at the height of his explosion, proving Kessler still has a ways to go in the strength department before he can dominate at the rim against the entire league like Gobert can.
Even without it, Kessler has been a better rim protector so far than Gobert, as holds a better defensive effective plus minus (+2.2, sixth in the NBA among center) than Gobert (+1.6, 10th), has a better block percentage (8.3%, first) than Gobert (3.8%, 88th percentile), and has more nearly twice as many blocks (87) than Gobert does (49) despite playing 320 less minutes than the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Even though we’re only halfway through the season, Kessler’s development alone, given his age (21) and rookie scale contract, has made the Gobert trade a failure to this point.
38th triple-double in franchise history.— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) January 17, 2023
Slowmo did a little bit of everything. pic.twitter.com/FXAdQfw5mW
Triple-Double, Slow-Mo Style
The beloved point forward put together his second career triple-double with 13 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists and 0 turnovers in 34 minutes of play on Monday afternoon.
“He’s really good at making the late play. Getting to the heart of the defense, taking in his time, finding the right play. You know, that’s why we love the ball in his hands,” Finch said of Anderson postgame. “I think that’s indicative, I don’t know how many triple doubles he’s had his career, but in my mind, he’s a triple-double-type player.”
Finch proved that by running things through his trusted vet in the fourth quarter, during which Anderson registered a team-high four assists.
Anderson is averaging 7.8 points on 48.9/39.5/78.6 shooting splits, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game this season, but those numbers are up to 9.9 points on 51.6/50.0/75.0 shooting splits, 4.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists over the last 15 games.
The Wolves will fly out to Mile High tomorrow afternoon before battling the first place Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night on ESPN at 8 PM CT.
fell just short.— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) January 16, 2023
Ant - 29 PTS / 4 REB / 5 AST / 3 STL
DLo - 21 PTS / 1 REB / 7 AST / 1 BLK
Jaylen - 16 PTS / 2 REB / 1 AST
Kyle - 13 PTS / 11 REB / 10 AST
TP - 12 PTS / 2 REB / 2 BLK / 1 STL
Austin - 10 PTS / 3 REB / 1 AST pic.twitter.com/9y06KL5Gkw