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Wolves 106, Thunder 103: Troy Brown Jr., Naz Reid Step Up After Edwards’ Injury

Brown Jr. and Reid combined for 19 of Minnesota’s 30 fourth quarter points, while Rudy Gobert’s 17 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks anchored the team to a crucial division win.

In - Season Tournament - Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The No. 1 seed Minnesota Timberwolves returned home on Tuesday night to cap off their NBA In-Season Tournament Western Conference Group C play, welcoming the No. 2 seed Oklahoma City Thunder and Minneapolis area native Chet Holmgren.

Yes, you read that correctly. The Timberwolves and Thunder top the NBA’s juggernaut Western Conference. I’m still warming up to it myself, but it does have a nice ring to it.

Minnesota came into the game 2-1 in Group C play, and were, with their 124-111 loss to the Sacramento Kings, essentially eliminated from any realistic chance of advancing to the In-Season Tournament quarterfinals given the Kings 3-0 group play record and Phoenix Suns’ +34 point differential all but locking up the lone Western Conference wild card spot.

Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch said pregame that the team made the players aware of the scenarios in which they could advance (needing a double-digit Golden State Warriors win over the Kings in the game following the Wolves/Thunder matchup and a blowout win over OKC), but that they wouldn’t treat it differently than a regular season game. The underlying message there is that if you focus on trying to win by 25, it’s harder to win the game (true!) and that the juice to gas it up to a 20-plus-point win probably isn’t worth the squeeze.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The Wolves to start the game played with good energy, matching that of the packed Target Center, but the scoreboard didn’t tell the same story. Minnesota moved the ball very well, but missed wide open shot after wide open shot, while on defense keeping Oklahoma City out of the paint.

Guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey — who was booed every time he touched the ball all night long — did a good chunk of the Thunder’s work in the mid-range in isolation, scoring against shorter and leaner defenders, while Chet Holmgren, Lu Dort and Cason Wallace poured in triples.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker guarded his cousin, looking to replicate his performance from last year’s Play-In Tournament victory over the Thunder, in which NAW held SGA to 22 points on 5/19 shooting. Unfortunately for Alexander-Walker and the Wolves, Gilgeous-Alexander scored 12 points on 6/6 shooting, with a trio of mid-range scores and three more at the rim, to pace a free-flowing and aggressive Thunder offense.

A key bright spot for the Timberwolves’ defense was their rebounding. Minnesota did not allow an offensive rebound, despite the Thunder concentrating their attack outside of the paint. Karl-Anthony Towns led the way with five defensive rebounds, but Rudy Gobert’s energy and intensity on both backboards was the team’s best constant in the quarter. Beyond his rebounding, Gobert set a tone with aggressive, physical defense on Holmgren, while posting up the rookie and making every defensive rebound a difficult task at the other end.

Offensively, good passing and unselfish play that generated open looks was overshadowed by a barrage of clanks off the rim and otherwise erratic play, especially from Towns — who had a pair of out-of-control turnovers and additional flailing droves — and Naz Reid — who was too quick for his own good (and the In-Season Tournament floor) on a couple of takes.

Overall, the Wolves committed five turnovers that resulted in six Thunder points, while also shooting just 6/25 (24%) from the floor and scored a measly 19 points, trailing 29-19 after one period.

Towns struggled to rein in his out of control play atop the second quarter, committing a turnover to start the period. He settled in temporarily with a triple to get the game back within five in the early going, as part of a +6 stint for the Wolves’ first five-man unit of the quarter, but remained in a flailing mode for much of the remainder of the game.

Much to the delight of I’m assuming Timberwolves fans everywhere, Anthony Edwards gained some downhill momentum; while he didn’t draw many fouls on the drive, he did find a heck of a rhythm in the drive-and-kick game. He created several open 3-point looks by collapsing the heart of the defense and added a layup in the paint. It was encouraging to see Edwards — and the rest of his teammates — continue to attack the paint despite getting a pretty brutal whistle in the quarter.

The downhill tone Edwards set helped the Wolves get going from beyond the arc, where Minnesota shot 7/10 in the period, led by a pair of makes from Reid and Mike Conley, who continues to shoot the lights out from deep. When Minnesota wasn’t making 3s, they were trying to feed the post for plays like this:

But on the other end of the floor, the Wolves just couldn’t get the necessary stops to cut into the Thunder lead.

A key part of that was Minnesota’s inability to defend without fouling. Oklahoma City shot just two free throws in the opening quarter, but got to the line 13 times in the second, making 10. Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams led the Thunder with four makes apiece.

In addition to drawing fouls, Head Coach Mark Daigneault’s team did an excellent job of getting into the paint, where they made seven of their 12 attempts. The Thunder’s 17/31 (54.8%) shooting from 2 was quite the difference from the Timberwolves’ 9/26 (34.6%). That pretty much explained the difference on the scoreboard at the break, with OKC leading 61-53 in a fast-paced, up-and-down second quarter.

Edwards emerged from the halftime locker room on a mission to put the Wolves on his back and change the complexion of the game. He did exactly that. After only putting up nine points in the first half, the All-Star scored the Wolves’ first 11 of the third period — two scores at the rim, two from deep and a free throw — almost instantly bring Minnesota back even at 64-64 just 4:26 into the quarter.

“Turned the game around for us. It’s a very tough team to play. They throw a lot of bodies at you when you put the ball on the deck and it was hard to get a rhythm offensively against them all night long,” Minnesota Head Coach Chris Finch said postgame. “That’s the beauty of a guy like Ant. He can create his own offense and do his own thing. Tonight was really an opportunity that we needed that.”

His teammates rode that wave, as Alexander-Walker added a go-ahead 3, while Gobert threw down a lob from Conley, and followed it with a put-back score. After Minnesota took a lead on the NAW 3 at the 6:42 mark of the quarter, Oklahoma City stayed hung right with them, going shot-for-shot down the stretch.

Edwards looked to send an even bigger message when he tried to dunk over Thunder big man Jaylin Williams (who slid under him in attempt to take a charge), but came down hard on his right hip. The Wolves called a timeout to check on Edwards, who remained down on the ground for the first 90 seconds of the commercial break.

He was lifted to his feet, but couldn’t put much weight on his right side. Towns and Shake Milton helped Edwards to the bench, where he sat for about a minute before standing under his own power and staying in the game to shoot his free throws. Unfortunately, Edwards was in extreme pain on the next couple of possessions and the Wolves had to foul so Ant could hobble his way back to the locker room, where he was diagnosed with a right hip contusion and did not return to the game.

Oklahoma City led 78-76 entering the fourth quarter.

To the Wolves’ credit, they didn’t panic without their superstar. Finch kept Kyle Anderson and Conley (who played the rest of the way) in the game to provide some stability, which led to Minnesota scoring on three of their first four possessions of the quarter and building a three-point lead in the opening two minutes.

From there, the game turned into a production with role players stepping into starring roles for both teams while the scoreboard remained within five points for the entire quarter.

With SGA out of the game for the first 6:30 of the fourth, Aaron Wiggins and Isaiah Joe stepped into the spotlight for Oklahoma City, while Reid and Troy Brown Jr. seized their moments for Minnesota with Towns and Edwards on the bench.

Wiggins and Joe combined for 10 points and three assists for the Thunder, with nearly all their scores or dimes coming in response to scores from the Wolves, who received crucial back-to-back scores from Reid to fend off a pair of jumpers from the OKC duo, en route to scoring seven in the fourth.

After a flurry of Thunder misses from deep, Holmgren and SGA got involved with back-to-back scores to pull back within three. But the Wolves held their ground. Brown Jr. stepped up with an attack at SGA to earn a pair of free throws, and then hit the shot of the night to to put his team in firm control.

Add in a crazy layup a couple possessions later and a final free throw, Brown Jr.’s fourth quarter talent reached 12 points on 3/4 shooting and three rebounds.

After the free throw game led to OKC getting one final possession down three, the Wolves held on to win 106-103.

Minnesota went 3-1 in West Group C of the In-Season Tournament, but are officially eliminated from the event because of the point differential tiebreaker, which they will lose to the winner of the Kings/Warriors game tonight.

This story will be updated throughout the night with quotes and more game takeaways after player and coach availability.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Rudy Gobert Dominates Chet Holmgren

Thunder center Chet Holmgren has received plenty of praise — and deservedly so — for the start to his NBA career. Holmgren entered Tuesday with averages of 18.1 points on 56.4/43.8/88.1 shooting splits, 8.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.3 blocks and 0.8 steals per game, firmly in control of the league’s Rookie of the Year race.

Rudy Gobert took all of that noise personally, setting out to prove he’s still the class of the league when it comes to rim protecting centers. From the opening tip, Gobert was extremely physical with Holmgren, slid his feet when the former Gonzaga star tried to drive, and cut off pretty much everything Holmgren was trying to do outside of shoot contested 3-pointers. But Holmgren was able to impact the game as a passer against the Wolves’ man-to-man defense, dropping five dimes that kept his impact up on the offensive end.

After the half, the Wolves switched to a 2-3 zone defense to address a few factors.

“We were so far off our guys in the first half. They kind of went wherever they wanted to go. That was the first thing we had to turn around. We did a good job there. We contested a lot better,” Finch said postgame. “I think they had like 15 points on uncontested shots in the first. Other than a few zone breakdowns, I thought pretty much every shot was contested for us tonight in the second half. That was better and that’s where it begins and ends.”

The zone also helped mitigate some of the Thunder’s efforts to minimize the three-time Defensive Player of the Year.

“With Holmgren, obviously, they pull you away from the hoop. The matchup takes you away. We didn’t really do a great job of making a lot of late switches, like we had talked about. And Rudy got caught like kind of in no man’s land. They were erasing him in the first half,” Finch explained.

Gobert played in the anchor spot of the zone as the rim protector, while Holmgren often floated into the middle of the zone as an offensive hub. Every time Chet caught the ball with Gobert on the floor, and I mean every time, Rudy swarmed him and made him feel extremely uncomfortable. Each and every shot Holmgren attempted with Gobert as the primary defender in the middle of the floor was either short off the rim, an air-ball, or a wild attempt that wasn’t close to going in.

“I can do it all, baby. I can do it all. You watch. I’ve got quick feet,” Gobert said in response to a question around the Thunder’s efforts to pull him out of the paint. “Teams try to do whatever they can to try to take advantage of me, or not take advantage of me but try to reduce my impact. You know it’s good that as a team we work on those things, when I’m guarding a stretch 5 or I’m guarding a wing or a shooter, we are ready to rotate and move our feet and just guard as a five-man unit, and tonight I thought in the second half we did a great job doing that.”

The former No. 2 overall pick shot 2/8 on 2-pointers in the second half and had just one assist. That turnaround was key for a Wolves defense looking to make things difficult for the one player on the Thunder capable of ruining the team’s primary defensive coverages, and a major passed test for a coaching staff that has been awesome with in-game adjustments this season.

“I thought the zone was great, but I just think our mindset was much better. I thought we were more physical in the second half, and our transition defense was better,” Gobert said postgame of the adjustment. “So all those things together, I thought everything was even harder for them.”

And even when plays broke down and the zone became a scramble man-to-man situation, Gobert held his own. This possession exemplifies that.

Beyond his stellar defense that featured a four blocks, a steal, and a team-high tying 10 defensive rebounds, Gobert added 17 points on 6/10 shooting (plus 5/6 on free throws), and six offensive rebounds. While some may refer to this one as The Troy Brown Jr. Game, it was another bullet point on an already-long list of stellar Gobert performances this season. And while offense waxed and waned throughout the game, Gobert’s undeniable two-way impact was an evident through line, one that has come to define the Timberwolves’ identity so far this season.

“I think it’s quite significant, really. I said this earlier in the season, like he’s a tone-setter for your defense,” Finch added. “He sets the tone not just with his presence back there and his activity this year, but also, he’s (doing a much better job) quarterbacking the defense. His communication is a lot more effective than it was a year ago. ... He’s a huge part of our identity, for sure.”

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Troy Brown Jr. Meets the Moment

Finch said after the game that when the Timberwolves signed Brown Jr. this past summer, they had every intention of Brown Jr. being in the rotation, but when they mapped it out in camp, he fell out. But that didn’t affect the sixth-year veteran’s approach.

“[He has] been nothing but professional,” Finch said. “I told him one day, ‘Hey, just bear with us. Your time is coming.’ He says, ‘I’m cool, coach. I’m ready. I’ll be ready.’ The more guys you have like that on your team, obviously the more it helps your maturity, and that’s been a big goal for us. So we had to get more guys who are willing to accept those kind of inconsistent roles.”

“[Wolves President of Basketball Operations] Tim [Connelly] and those guys do a great job of canvassing you know the league and understanding all the intel of all those players, so for sure that some of that goes into it,” Finch said, explaining how those intangibles are a key part of the free agency process.

Brown Jr. was inserted into the rotation when Jaden McDaniels went down with an ankle sprain and has played great minutes for the Wolves since, shooting 6/13 (46.1%) from 3 while also providing the team with important energy plays on both backboards and solid defense on players ranging from quick guards to burlier wings.

“I love coaching him because he’s just the same mood every day. He’s really happy whether he’s in the rotation or not. He’s patient. He understands. He gets it,” Finch said. “He’s a lot better shooter than I thought he was. We knew he could shoot but he’s one of those guys where he catches the ball and lets it fly, I think it’s going in automatically. Before I thought he was a little more streaky, but watching him play up close and personal I noticed the confidence in his shot and he can shoot contested threes, which is really a benefit too.

“I just like that he does a lot of small things. He cuts, moves the ball well. He’s not a ball holder. He’s not trying to pound it, and we need that at times. Even more so than anything else.”

“At this point that’s the NBA. You can literally go from being sixth man to not in the rotation. It’s just based off what the team needs at the time,” Brown Jr. told reporters in the locker room. “To me, I’ve had my ups and downs in the career. Just being in different positions and learning how to deal with all that mentally has helped me a lot. Now I just try to be as happy as I can and bring energy to my teammates and stay ready.”

The former Oregon star credited his teammates for breathing confidence into him for moments like that big fourth quarter 3-pointer, despite playing inconsistent minutes to this point in the season.

“My teammates make me feel comfortable to take those shots. They see me hit them in practice and they instill confidence in me to shoot them. When I don’t shoot them, they get mad. Good problem to have.”

Now, without McDaniels for potentially another week and change, and Edwards’ status up in the air for Thursday, Brown Jr. could go from out of the rotation to in the starting lineup in a matter of days. If he continues to shoot the ball the way he has while bringing all the same effort and intensity to the game, the Timberwolves may not miss a beat with the way they have answered when adversity calls.

Gobert described what winning these types of games require.

“Resilience. Adversity comes, you’ve got to elevate. That’s what champions do, and that’s what we want to do every night. There’s always going to be adversity,” he said. “However it is, whichever form it comes, we’ve got to be ready to step up and tonight we’ve got guys who stepped like, like Troy for example. I thought we did as a team, our mindset. Ant went down, and we looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s get it.’”

And got it, they did.

Up Next

The Wolves will host the struggling Utah Jazz, whom they defeated 123-95 earlier in the season, on Thursday. Fans can watch the 7 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North.

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