Great teams are able to follow up great performances against championship level teams like the Wolves had against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday with equally good outings against lesser teams. With the 2-4 Jazz coming in losers in three of their last four games, Saturday certainly fit that description.
It is clear that Finch has hammered home strong starts, because this Wolves team is not built to climb out of holes. The developing identity is one rooted in half-court execution on both ends, rather than a run-and-gun style that can put up points in a hurry. Early on, his team made good on that message.
Minnesota played more structured offense, getting Anthony Edwards the ball coming around off-ball screens to attack switches, and spacing nicely to create driving and passing lanes for their young star. Edwards attacked gaps to create for himself and others, scoring or assisting on all of the Wolves’ first nine points en route to his team connecting on eight of its first nine shots.
it's Q1 and Ant's already feelin' it pic.twitter.com/DKRU5PAU2M— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 5, 2023
Karl-Anthony Towns joined him by playing bully ball against the much thinner John Collins, who he attacked twice for scores inside and a third time for a shooting foul, giving him a quick six points and the Wolves a healthy 17-8 lead early on. The two teams then traded buckets as a result of some good ol’ spacing and and shot making with a mix of bad defensive breakdowns.
Jazz Head Coach Will Hardy then inserted Lauri Markkanen back into the game and let him (and the rest of the squad) loose from deep. The Finnisher connected on a trio of tough triples to pull Utah back within 3, before sophomore wing Ochai Agbaji drained a buzzer-beating 3 to make it 29-27 Wolves after one.
Even when Utah wasn’t connecting on 3-pointers, they were collecting their misses; the Jazz scored seven points off seven offensive boards, which continued into the second quarter. The Jazz did a good job of getting into the paint as a means of spraying it back out for corner splashes, which eventually softened the interior defense for drivers like Keyonte George and Talen Horton-Tucker. Utah mixed their attacks nicely, keeping the Wolves’ defense off-balance for the first half of the quarter.
Kyle Anderson was tremendous for Minnesota all half, scoring six points, dishing four assists, blocking two shots and coming up with a steal in his 16 minutes. His playmaking was essential to a Wolves team that is still struggling to find consistent production from either Nickeil Alexander-Walker or Shake Milton. Anderson has been the glue between a front-court pairing of Towns and Naz Reid, who scored a quick nine first-half points in 13 minutes. That trio held a net rating of +11.7 coming into the game, and will be fun to follow.
But once Edwards, he sensed it was time to grab hold of things, like he tends to do for packed home games.
The All-Star engine realized the Jazz had no individual defender capable of staying with him in straight line driving situations, so he proceeded to carve up the league’s 24th-ranked defense with ease. Whether it was with quick takes, euro-steps through the lane, or trying to dunk over Kelly Olynyk, Edwards infused energy and scoring into an offense that struggled to generate open looks for the majority of the quarter.
Minnesota rode that wave, played with more pace, and blitzed Utah with a 15-5 run to close the half and enter the break with a 55-50 lead at halftime behind Edwards’ game-high 19 points.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but coming out of the locker room, the Wolves yet again played with very little energy. There wasn’t much man or ball movement against Utah’s man-to-man defense, and the Jazz strung together a little 8-4 run capped off by an explosive THT dunk over Gobert, prompting a Finch timeout.
Out of the huddle, Utah switched to a hybrid 2-2-1 zone, which served as a hard reset of sorts for the Timberwolves’ offense. Minnesota started moving the ball, found the middle of the zone, and just picked it apart. The Wolves scored on six consecutive possessions, highlighted by two badly needed 3-pointers from Towns, who started the season 5/24 (20.8%) from beyond the arc. KAT and Co. used that explosion to balloon the lead out to eight, before the usual suspects were around to blow the game open.
“It was great to see some 3s go in for him because we really need that. We need him to take more. He’s gotten really good looks for most of the season so far. It was only a matter of time until they go in. He had a matchup in the post, too. It was good to finally see him get a run going,” Finch said of the three-time All-Star. “It’s good to get a couple games under the belt. Spacing’s been really good and it’s led to a lot of really good stuff for him and us.
In the middle of that onslaught, McDaniels picked up his fourth foul in just seven minutes of play, prompting Finch to turn to Anderson, who was joined by Reid shortly thereafter. Together with Towns, they accounted for the team’s next 17 points, highlighted by a buzzer-beater from Slow-Mo to close a terrific, 37-27 frame from the Timberwolves. On the other end of the floor, Minnesota worked to just 1/6 from deep after allowing 10 made 3-pointers in the first half, alone.
Kyle Anderson fadeaway jumper pic.twitter.com/WKuTbeLVjA— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) November 5, 2023
On that scoring run, Anderson made two tough isolation scores as the shot clock winded down, and Reid did a phenomenal job of turning any Wolves’ defensive rebound into a transition scoring look on the other end of the floor. And when the team got into the flow in the half-court, Towns drew fouls in the middle of the defense to keep applying pressure. Minnesota got to the line a season-high 31 times, connecting on 24 of them (77.4%), led by Towns connecting on nine of his 10 freebies.
It was the best game of the year for KAT, who finished with 25 points on 7/14 shooting, seven rebounds and two steals.
The Wolves held a 92-77 lead after three, which quickly got north of 20 behind a triple from Reid and a Conley pick-six off a turnover. From there, Minnesota cruised to the finish line in what was an ugly offensive fourth quarter that featured three minutes of game time with just one made shot on either side. Edwards ended that drought with a huge windmill jam to put the finishing touches on what was an impressive, business-like 123-95 win from a now 3-2 Timberwolves team that for fourth time in five games held their opponent under 100 points. As a result, Minnesota now holds the No. 1 defensive rating in the league (101.5) and the NBA’s No. 4 net rating (+7.4).
brb, playing this on repeat pic.twitter.com/Id0noZRtAE— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 5, 2023
Edwards finished with a game-high 31 points on 13/19 shooting, eight rebounds, and six assists in what was a complete showing from him after he set the tone with a tremendous first quarter. With his final score, Edwards crossed the 5,000-point mark for his career, doing so in the fewest amount of games in franchise history (228).
This story will be updated throughout the night after coach and player media availability.
A Defensive Identity
No NBA team has held their opponent under 100 points more times than the Minnesota Timberwolves (four) through the first two weeks of the season. That matches the number of times they did it in the entire 2022-23 campaign, including the postseason.
“You’re just not going to win much unless you guard. I’ve been on teams that try to outscore people and it looks great. But oftentimes you end up on the wrong side of the scoreboard and it’s not a lot of fun. You don’t feel like you can ever control the game, even when you’re scoring,” Finch said postgame.
“When I first got here and we were really young, it’s just easier to have a pursuit mentality than too many reads and stuff like that, so just peel it back.... Last year I don’t think we ever found an identity. We just never did,” he admitted earnestly. “We did a lot good things. We kind of reinvented ourselves many times along the way. But coming into the season, we just knew, with our lineup, that it had to be defense. It had to be defense, and it had to be big.If you’re going to play big with big guys, you’ve got to do the things that big teams do. Big teams should be physical and they should play defense.”
There is no questioning that the Timberwolves have been successful early in their journey to establish a defensive identity. Outside of the second half in Atlanta, they’ve played nine strong defensive halves and have shown promise towards correcting two key issues they had last season: consistently losing the battle in points off turnovers and rebounding. On Saturday, Minnesota scored a season-high 23 points off of season-high 18 forced turnovers, and won 43-39 on the boards against a big Utah team despite allowing 17 offensive rebounds that became 24 second chance points.
Finch credited was quick to dish out praise of his players and coaches.
“First and foremost, our guys are really bought into the urgency to get back. We put a highlighter on everybody not doing their part in transition and we’ve had some guys that have bad habits, and they’ve been much better, certainly since Game 1, but all season,” Finch said, before praising new Assistant Coach Corliss Williamson, who has led the charge with transforming the team’s transition defense.
“[He] has done a really, really good job of coming up with our plan of attack in defensive transition. We’re more organized than we had been before. He kind of oversees that for us, and made it simple. ... But it comes down to you’ve gotta care, you’ve gotta get back, you’ve gotta have a give-a-shit factor.”
That combination has led to the Timberwolves posting the league’s top defensive rating in transition, even though they do allow the sixth-highest opponent transition rate. Minnesota unquestionably needs to be better at simply getting back so rebounds and steals can’t turn into transition opportunities; but when they do happen, the Wolves have done a terrific job at preventing them from turning into points.
The Wolves will keep the homestand rolling by welcoming Jayson Tatum and the red hot Boston Celtics to Target Center on Monday night. Fans can watch the 7 PM tip on Bally Sports North.