The Minnesota Timberwolves were evidently motivated by a clear objective to prove their rock bottom loss to the last-place Detroit Pistons was not only firmly in the rearview mirror — but also out of character — when they stepped onto the Target Center floor Monday night,
Knowing they had division rival and the Western Conference’s top-seeded Denver Nuggets in town playing on the second night of a back-to-back, a very short-handed Minnesota squad came out of the gates with a legitimately fantastic sense of urgency, effort level and cohesion not seen in weeks. In addition, Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch frequently switched both in and out of a 2-3 zone and who guarded Nikola Jokić so the two-time MVP couldn’t get comfortable making reads. That’s the type of coaching performance that helps an injury-depleted team punch above its weight class.
In addition to their long-term injury list of Karl-Anthony Towns (right calf strain), Taurean Prince (right shoulder sublaxation) and Jordan McLaughlin (left calf strain), the Timberwolves were also without Naz Reid (back spasms), Bryn Forbes (late scratch) and D’Angelo Russell (illness).
With Russell absent, Finch turned the point guard keys over to Anthony Edwards, who quickly deferred to Kyle Anderson. Between the two of them, they quickly moved the ball with consistency, ensured all of their teammates got a touch, and the entire offense profited.
“I think there was a concerted effort, certainly. We addressed it the other day. Also, playing through Kyle early in the offense is huge for us when we’re able to do that,” Finch explained postgame. “I thought Ant and Jaylen came out and set the tone by moving the ball too, and it wasn’t just one pass early, it was multiple pass-pass combinations. Things we found. We found Rudy on a pass-pass roll dunk. We haven’t seen that for a long, long time. I think it was just a total team commitment to move the ball.”
Minnesota quickly jumped out to an early lead because that ball movement sent the defense scrambling and opened driving lanes. Anderson, Gobert, McDaniels and Nowell all took advantage with multiple scores at the rim against one of the league’s worst interior defenses.
Sharing the love like that leads to good things over the course of a game.
“Just great offense, great shots, energy, confidence in guys,” Anderson said in the locker room postgame. “You can see just a different spark in Jaden. Played with a lot of confidence tonight. I feel like he was getting a lot of touches, the ball is in his hands. Get your swagger.”
After holding Jamal Murray scoreless in the first, McDaniels’ offensive game deservedly got its shine in the second quarter as the Wolves built a lead in the final 7:00 of the half.
“He’s a really skilled player. Can do a lot of different things. Can cut, crash, make a spot three, play off the catch,” Finch said, heaping praise on his third-year stopper. “But if the ball doesn’t move, these things don’t come to life for him. It’s kind of a barometer for our offensive ball movement.”
McDaniels finished with 21 points on 9/10 shooting, 16 of which he scored off of assists from his teammates. He scored seven in the second quarter alone, when the Wolves’ ball movement peaked. That’s a huge testament to Edwards’ growth as a playmaker; Ant thrived when tasked with ball-handling duties in the second quarter, despite his shot not falling.
“Just being able to get off the ball. I don’t think it’s much like getting an assist, just getting off the ball early. I think that’s [where I’ve grown] most,” Edwards told Canis Hoopus in the locker room.
Anderson echoed that sentiment after praising the young star’s willingness to learn.
“He’s willing to learn. I mean, he wants to get better every day and it’s gonna come,” Slow-Mo told Canis. “Obviously he’s improved and he’s gotten a lot better but he’s willing to learn, he wants to get better. He wants to do a better job at it.”
As an example of that willingness to learn, Edwards admitted he needed help from his coach.
“When I realize, when I came down the court I seen who I had on me. Most of the time, Finchy did a great job. He was calling plays. Other times, he’ll tell me when to go. He’ll be like, ‘Alright, go, go, go,’ like when I’m pushing the ball. So, he kind of helped me out tonight.
“I’m not your typical point guard, so he got to help me out sometimes. I don’t know what to run because I might call something that’s going to be for me,” Edwards said through a laugh. “But no, he was helping me throughout the game like, ‘Run this, run this,’ and it would work.”
While Anderson and Edwards were helping get everyone involved offensively, Wolves rotational big Nate Knight stepped up in a major way defensively.
His strength, length and foot speed both stifled Jokić as a scorer and as a passer on the low block. Over the nearly four minutes Knight guarded Jokić, the pride of Sombor, Serbia shot 0/3 from the floor, did not score and recorded only one assist.
Minnesota’s five-man combo of Jaylen Nowell, Edwards, McDaniels, Anderson and Knight was a +9 from the 7:37 mark of the second to the 3:21 mark, the best stint of any unit. Their efforts had the Wolves ahead 59-53 at the break.
Unfortunately, the Timberwolves fell into their now-standard sluggish start out of the locker room to start the third quarter.
The Wolves’ perimeter defense failed to contain Murray — who quickly made a layup after a ridiculous fake, drained a 3-pointer and dimed up Michael Porter Jr. for a dunk all within the first 3:00. Then, Jokić threw the Minnesota defense on the chopping block and started carving it up like a butcher. He recorded assists on four straight possessions before his sixth assist of the quarter prompted a Finch timeout to stop the bleeding at the 6:57 mark of frame with the score tied at 74.
After feeling out the defense for the first 32 minutes to gain a mastery of how Denver defended him, Edwards decided he was ready to make the game his.
The All-Star-to-be attacked the teeth of the defense for a tough layup inside, then took it right back at the Nuggets interior to earn a pair of free throws on the subsequent trip. After blowing a layup, Edwards slowed his dribble atop the key next time down; by now, Timberwolves faithful know what that means — a cash money 3.
His next score, though, highlights a key potential evolution in his game that can catapult him into the Luka Dončić stratosphere of physical scoring guards.
Edwards added a nasty pull-up 3 to the ledger before the horn sent the game into the fourth, which gave him 12 points in 2:08 of game time and 15 on the quarter tally.
Did his teammates need him to take over the game?
“Yeah, for sure. They tell me, they tell me,” Edwards said with a big smile on his face. “Especially this group of guys, they be upfront with me. ‘Hey, it’s time to take over.’ Someone told going into the third quarter after the first [timeout], ‘Alright, take this game over.’”
Safe to say he heard his teammates loud and clear. After the Wolves briefly surrendered the lead, Edwards’ dominance secured his team a 90-85 lead entering the final 12 minutes.
I asked Finch if Edwards’ dominance in the second half of games (16.4 points per 2H over his last 10 games) after feeling out defenses is a sign of his maturation as an offensive player.
“I think he’s doing a much better job of recognizing pick and roll coverages, whether they’re up or down. Teams, when they send him a certain direction, he’s less hesitant and sees it earlier,” Finch explained. “One of the big plays tonight was when he got off it, and it was swing, swing in the corner, just because they were sitting in the gap for him. So he’s doing a better job, for sure, of recognizing these things.”
I asked Edwards if that mindset of ‘feeling out in the first half, dominate the second half’ is something he’s focused on this season.
“Yeah, for sure. I knew it was going to be high wall, have some tricky defenses. They wasn’t leaving me in the first half. First half, they weren’t rotating off me. The second half, they started rotating because the guys were making shots and they made it easy for me.”
Only five players have scored more second half PPG over their team's last 10 games than Anthony Edwards (16.4):— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) January 3, 2023
1) Luka Dončić - 19.4
2) Devin Booker - 19.0*
3) Zion Williamson - 18.4
4) LeBron James - 18.3
5) Jayson Tatum - 16.7
*only 2 GP
The third-year leap is soaring pic.twitter.com/G4S3YPxHQ8
Edwards headed to the bench at the start of the fourth like he usually does, but unlike Timberwolves games of late, he actually had time to catch his breath.
Why? Luka Garza.
The two-time Wooden Award Winner at Iowa scored Minnesota’s first five points of the quarter before adding a pair of free throws to help match Nuggets backup point guard Bones Hyland’s eight quick points in the first 2:35 of the period.
Nowell added a score and an assist before he canned a massive triple with 7:30 left to give the Wolves a 10-point lead, 105-95, after missing his first six 3-pointers. Most of his 17 points felt like they built up the dam when the Nuggets tried to break it with a big run.
Nowell had a big smile on his face for most of the answer. Despite his struggles, he's remaining positive and trusting his work.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) January 3, 2023
Was cool to see him confront those struggles how he did, without letting them get in the way of playing a key role in a big win https://t.co/ylL6iykWbr
Finch promptly called a timeout after a missed Wolves’ 3 turned into a Denver run-out and a dunk for Jokić, a welcome sign for fans who have been critical of Finch’s rather conservative timeout practices.
Edwards re-entered with 6:48 to go not only with a chance to take down the top team in the West, but with a lead (eight) bigger than the one he went to the bench with (five).
After Jokić and Porter Jr. made back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the lead to two, the defensive attention Edwards received helped Minnesota fight back against a premier clutch time team. Aaron Gordon face-guarded Edwards above the break, which allowed McDaniels to cut under him for a layup. Then, Edwards took it right at Gordon in isolation after his block the Nuggets swingman was questionably called a foul (Gordon missed both; ball don’t lie). To cap the sequence off, Denver loaded up in the gaps and doubled him, so he quickly got off the ball by swinging it to Austin Rivers, who found a wide open Anderson in the corner for 3.
So, instead of the Nuggets clawing back and reclaiming the lead, Edwards slammed the door shut on offense. Edwards finished with 29 points (21 in the second half), 10 rebounds and five dimes, further cementing his case to be the team’s closer.
“You need a run stopper, you need a closer to win in this league for sure. You know, he’s becoming that guy for us,” Anderson said postgame. “He was in the playoffs last year for Minnesota, down the stretch last year for them in Minnesota. So we need him to be that. And he did a great job of it today.”
Defensively, Rudy Gobert completely dominated the interior over his last stint in the final 6:48 of play.
After he switched things up early, Finch settled on tasking Anderson with guarding Jokić, leaving Gobert to play a roaming free safety on the back end of the defense. Although he didn’t have five blocks or 15 rebounds, his presence undoubtedly deterred Nuggets players from trying him at the rim, all while Anderson did a phenomenal job battling with the Joker. The Anderson/Gobert tandem forced Jokić to do his work outside the paint, and Jokić scored only one bucket in the paint once Gobert re-entered.
Gobert’s impact reached its peak with one of his first defensive moments as a Wolf that carried a true ‘fuck you’ feel.
Rudy Gobert crazy block, called a goaltend pic.twitter.com/0nwgslbTi6— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) January 3, 2023
Even though it was called a goaltend (debatable), that had to feel awesome for Gobert. He has clearly heard all the noise about the trade, from Walker Kessler’s success with the Utah Jazz to his teammates frustration with his play. The back-and-forth between him and Jokić inside got chippier especially in the fourth — when Gobert was winning the matchup.
His emphatic swat felt like a message, not just to Jokić or the Nuggets, or outside fans and media, but also to Timberwolves fans, his teammates, and the organization. Sitting in the arena, I heard it loud and clear — exactly how the Target Center delivered their singing praise of his effort.
While the team has a long way to go, tonight laid out a clear blueprint for how Minnesota should be (and this summer probably envisioned) operating down the stretch of games: Anthony Edwards taking over the offense while Rudy Gobert holds down the fort defensively.
When Karl-Anthony Towns returns, he can effectively serve as a wildly overqualified second option on offense who can pitch in defensively with his length in the gaps and size on the glass. Anderson — whose 19-point, eight-assist, four-rebound, three-steal night embodies his all-around impact — can similarly fill in the gaps on a smaller scale.
How D’Angelo Russell fits into that picture beyond a floor-spacing spot-up shooter became much murkier tonight. Russell missed tonight’s game with an illness and was not with the team on the bench, a standard practice for players missing the game due to illness. The Wolves are now 7-2 over Russell’s last nine games missed and have scored at least 120 points in six of the seven wins.
Edwards (five) and Anderson (eight) dished out 13 assists and had the offense humming with their playmaking. Their collective playmaking efficiency should only become improve when Towns and McLaughlin make their returns at some point over the next few weeks, too.
Finch said during his postgame press conference Monday that the team addressed ball movement “the other night,” in reference to a postgame discussion held in the locker room. Although Finch did not specify whether it was said while the coaches were addressing the team or after they left and the players only meeting began, it is fair to question how much the ball movement issue prior to Monday’s win is connected to Russell’s role as the lead playmaker. He also was one of the first members of the team to leave the locker room following the loss to the Pistons and subsequent players only meeting, and thus not available to media afterwards.
If the Timberwolves find greater success with Edwards in a James Harden/Dončić style super point guard role, they made decide to explore that path on a more full-time basis. With Russell on an expiring contract, the team could move him ahead of the February 9 trade deadline given that they are not going to extend him prior to Russell hitting unrestricted free agency this summer.
If Russell misses more time and the Wolves’ offense continues to thrive, those rumblings may grow louder as Minnesota hosts playoff-caliber opponents in the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers at Target Center on Wednesday and Friday, respectively. But until then, the Timberwolves will surely enjoy a big-time win over the first-place Nuggets that could very well be a turning for them on multiple fronts as they look to make a run in a wide open Western Conference.
couldn’t ask for a better start to 2023.— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) January 3, 2023
Ant - 29 PTS / 10 REB / 5 AST / 1 STL
Jaden - 21 PTS / 4 REB / 4 AST / 1 BLK / 1 STL
Kyle - 19 PTS / 4 REB / 8 AST / 3 STL
Jaylen - 17 PTS / 4 REB / 2 AST / 1 STL pic.twitter.com/jSlMHSb24R
Coming off a blowout home win over the Pistons, the 19-17 Blazers will roll into Downtown Minneapolis for a visit on Wednesday night at 7 PM CT. Fans can watch the game on Bally Sports North.