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Wolves 120, Thunder 95: Towns, Gobert Lead Minnesota Back to the Playoffs

Karl-Anthony Towns’ game-highs of 29 points and 11 rebounds led the Timberwolves past the Thunder to advance to the first round of the NBA Playoffs.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Minnesota Timberwolves Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

There was a palpable buzz walking into Target Center on Friday afternoon, not just as a preview of what was to come on a night filled with opportunity, but because of what the Minnesota Timberwolves have been all season.

Just when things start to click, they fall apart. When you expect them to zig, they zag. After giving away a Play-In game in brutal fashion on Tuesday in Los Angeles, the Timberwolves could’ve easily struggled to get back off the mat and let a First Team All-NBA candidate in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander push them to the brink and end their season early.

Despite the unfortunate events of the week leading up to the first “Game 84” in franchise history, there was a calm amidst the chaos in the Timberwolves locker room, largely because of 16-year NBA veteran Mike Conley, the undisputed leader of the team. Conley broke up a near fight in the halftime locker room on Sunday, before galvanizing the group before the third quarter and leading them to a win to secure the eight spot in the Play-In Tournament. Then, he helped the team get in the right mindset to live to fight another day on Friday night.

“The L.A. game was not an easy one to walk away from feeling good about,” Conley said postgame. “For us to come back and be able to flush that and concentrate on OKC and really (win) on an unselfish, defensive, high-intensity level, it was a game that really showed us what we can be when we play the right way and play with the right energy.”

Minnesota did just that as they shifted into another gear in the second half to pull away, behind Karl-Anthony Towns’ game-highs of 28 points and 11 rebounds. The Wolves blew out the Oklahoma City Thunder 120-95 to advance to the first round of the NBA’s Western Conference Playoffs, where they will be the No. 8 seed open a best-of-seven series against the No. 1 seed Denver Nuggets on Sunday night in the Mile High City.

“It feels great. This is what you envision when you get drafted. Just wanting to play in the playoffs and give ourselves a chance to play winning basketball. I’m super happy that we’re here again, two years in a row,” longtime Timberwolf Karl-Anthony Towns said postgame, reminding the media it was the first time since 2003-04 the Wolves have made the playoffs in consecutive years.

“So that’s really cool to be able to put Minnesota back where they belong and give the fans the chance to watch playoff basketball.”

Now, for some takeaways.

2023 Play-In Tournament - Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Nickeil Alexander-Walker Game

Growing up in Toronto, Ontario, Nickeil Alexander-Walker went head-to-head with his cousin Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for summers on end. Last night, those lifelong battles may have culminated with a win-or-go-home matchup on ESPN, but Alexander-Walker didn’t lose sight of those driveway games as he prepared for the big stage.

“He’s been on a tear this whole season, so just thinking back to those days back in grade five, grade six and just trusting that,” Alexander-Walker said of the Thunder superstar. “Honestly, it’s like so easy to put pressure or whatever. But I just took a step back. I was just so thankful for that opportunity to start and have that assignment to guard him. It’s a little different because this is somebody I grew up with my whole life. I feel like as far as people, he knows me better than anybody and I know him better than anybody, I could say. It was really cool to have that experience and go against him.”

NAW proved that he knew his cousin pretty well. He helped hold Gilgeous-Alexander to 22 points on 5/19 shooting (26.3%), well below his season averages of 31.4 points and 51.0% shooting, respectively.

“[Our] defense was phenomenal. We executed everything we talked about doing. I thought Nickeil did a great job setting the tone on on Shai. He’s a really tough cover,” Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch said postgame. “But we were closing those spaces around him and did a good job of just kinda not really letting him get into a rhythm.”

Not only was Alexander-Walker essential in slowing down the Oklahoma City’s offensive engine, but he did so in his first start as a Wolf.

“Quite honestly, it was something that [President of Basketball Operations] Tim Connelly said, ‘Hey, here’s a wild one. What do you think?’ And I said, ‘Makes a lot of sense.’ I hadn’t really started thinking a lot about that kind of stuff,” Finch said about the decision to start NAW over Kyle Anderson so NAW could take SGA. “That allowed us to lengthen our rotation. ... and it kept Ant out of, really, foul trouble. We thought Ant would move over and guard more, but then Nickeil did such a wonderful job defending on his own, he kinda finished it off.”

Towns and Conley were effusive in their praise of the fourth-year perimeter stopper.

“X-factor. He’s the reason we won. He went out there and had a very, very tough job tonight to guard Shai, whose been fantastic this whole year and one of the best scorers in the league. To see what he did is the reason we won,” Towns said. “We can talk about everyone down the list who had big numbers, but Nickeil did the job. He’s the one who took us to the finish line. So shoutout to him.”

“Nickeil, he’s one of the hardest working guys I know. Honestly doesn’t leave the gym. He’s been probably waiting for this opportunity a long time, playing against his cousin, family member, and they compete,” said Conley, who NAW referred to as a “big brother” postgame. “He was texting us the night they were playing New Orleans and talking about what guys like to do and don’t do. So he was really locked in for the last few days. Just to see him go out there and perform the way he did, he was huge for us tonight. Especially without Jaden and Naz, man, he was huge.”

Beyond five-stock night and tremendous defensive impact, Alexander-Walker contributed 12 points and six assists on the offensive end, filling the connective tissue role that Anderson and Jaden McDaniels have thrived in down the stretch of the season.

“Nickeil does an amazing job of cutting and giving me outlets when I can’t get the first go quick off the post, it gives us a chance to move the ball and not just have it be in one person’s hands,” Towns said.

More than anything, Finch was ecstatic to see Alexander-Walker — a player he coached as a rookie while he was an Assistant Coach with the New Orleans Pelicans — answer the door when opportunity knocked.

“Really proud and happy for him to come out and be able to play a game like this. Someone said he’s had five coaches in his career so far, something like that. And so it’s tough for a guy to come into the league with a vision of who you are and how you want to play, and make your mark on the league. And it doesn’t always unfold like that, certainly not right away,” Finch said.

“I think he’s at peace with now who he is as a player. He plays to his strengths a lot more. He doesn’t try to do too much, which he did as a young player, just because he was so eager. And his defense has, as you saw tonight, has grown.”

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Minnesota Timberwolves Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

A Composed, In-Control Karl-Anthony Towns

No player in the NBA can impact a game quite like Towns. The three-time All-Star possesses a special blend of shooting, quickness, power and touch at all three levels of the defense, which he combines with a post-up game and a high-level passing ability that can pick defenses apart from anywhere on the floor.

However, none of that matters if Towns isn’t in control of his emotions. Over the years, his composure has become his biggest weakness, and himself his own worst enemy. That has far too often manifested itself in physically and verbally complaining about calls (or the lack thereof). But now, after missing 52 games with a right calf strain, Towns has gained a new perspective that he believes helped him turn a corner in that department.

“I’ve been on the sideline a lot and I’m just kind of seeing how our team is and I think we’re a little emotional a lot so I don’t want to add to it. So I’m just trying to keep a backseat to that. I just feel like I’m just trying to do a better job of keeping the composure around everyone, especially,” Towns told Canis Hoopus at the podium.

“I draw a lot of fouls, and I also get a lot of fouls. I don’t want to kind of add to the possibility of getting more fouls by just being erratic with everybody. So if I have a point to make, just say it in a calm way, or just talk to them in a way, and then just get over it, go to the next play,” Towns continued. “Because we don’t have a room for error and I can’t be out there trying to do different things that I feel will help but will hurts us at the same time.”

Friday night was the latest entry in what has been a consistent stream of performances underscored by a version of Towns that is very in-control of himself — both physically, dominating the game, and emotionally, permeating mostly positive energy throughout the team.

Towns scored a game-high 28 points on 10/12 shooting from 2, 1/4 from 3, and 5/5 from the free throw line, grabbed three offensive boards and dished a trio of dimes.

“KAT did a really good job of paying attention to his spacing, did a good job of making the simply play out of the double. He did a good job of being aggressive at the right times and kind of, in the third quarter, got those and-1s on those drives and got a couple big put-backs,” Finch said of his superstar.

The 2022 Third Team All-NBA selection was the best player on the floor from start to finish and played a starring role in blowing the doors off the game.

He and Conley scored the first 10 points of the second quarter on a 10-2 Wolves run to build a sizable lead and some breathing room into the half. Out of the break, Towns took complete control. The big fella scored nine points in the first 5:39 of the half to build the Wolves’ lead to a game-high 14, highlighted by him bullying the Jaylin Williams for an and-1.

His teammates rode the wave from there, driving the lead up to 17 at the end of the third quarter while he got a much-needed rest. By the time Towns re-entered roughly six minutes later, the lead held strong at 18, largely because of the play of his front-court mate, Rudy Gobert.

2023 Play-In Tournament - Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Two Banger Responses

As I wrote in the preview, both Gobert and Anthony Edwards had an opportunity to put their respective stamp on the game in the wake of disappointing performances.

After being booed in pregame intros and disappointing first half in which he racked up only four points and four rebounds, Gobert led the charge and won back the fans with a dominant third quarter. The Stifle Tower completely dominated the interior by deterring Thunder drivers and collecting three defensive rebounds, while also impacting the offensive end with his vertical spacing.

Gobert threw down a dunk, made a pair of free throws, and scored at the rim off a beautiful feed from Towns all in the span of the first five minutes of the second half, before returning for a tremendous second stint. Gobert capped off a dominant period with a free throw and a finish before the end of the third in incredible fashion.

Get SGA a map!

The three-time All-Star added another bucket and free throw in the first minute of the fourth quarter to balloon the lead out to 20. From there on in, he just started having fun out there.

Gobert finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds, marking the second time both Towns and Gobert put together dual 20/10 performances in the same game. The

“We believe that every night is going to be mismatches, and even if it’s not a mismatch I think KAT can score against anybody in the post and I can dominate against anybody in the paint. So it’s really about us as a team, understanding how to space for each other, how to understand the momentum of the game,” Gobert said postgame.

“Ant, Mike, [know] how to use all the talent that we have and how to maximize that talent, and I thought that was probably one of the best games we had spacing for each other,” Gobert continued. “I thought the times when Ant wasn’t handling the ball, he did an amazing job spacing and the time when KAT wasn’t in action he did an amazing job spacing, and that allowed everybody else to punish those defenses because they bring so much attention, and I believe that’s how you punish a defense. It’s really tough to guard with the talent that we have if we decide to and if we learn how to space for each other.”

Edwards’ impact lived on the margins, considering Lu Dort did a fantastic job of limiting the damage Ant could do as a scorer. Instead of forcing it, Edwards got off the ball early, trusted that the ball would come back to him in the flow of the offense and made the defense play off the catch. Like Gobert said, Edwards was especially good moving into empty space off-ball so as to maintain optimal spacing for his teammates. He made a trio of catch-and-shoot 3s, too, which still remains an underrated part of his game.

Edwards scored 19 points on 8/19 shooting as a result of missing bunnies in the paint, but added 10 rebounds (a consistently great element of his game of late), six assists (four of which were 3s), a block and a pair of steals.

To pair with a solid ancillary offensive performance, Edwards limited Jalen Williams’ impact off the dribble, grabbed nine defensive rebounds and as a weak-side rim defender made drivers think twice about going up with layups.

The wonderful part about where Edwards is as a player is that even on his down offensive nights, he isn’t having any trouble finding alternative ways to impact winning. Whether it is stepping up to guard Brandon Ingram in clutch time, rotating for a block as the low-man, grabbing a rebound in amongst the trees on either backboard, making smart reads on perimeter passes, or some combination of those, the former No. 1 pick is making his presence felt every night.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves - Play-In Tournament Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Quick Hitters

  • For the first time since 2003-2004, the Wolves are going to the NBA Playoffs in consecutive seasons
  • The Timberwolves are 9-2 when Kyle Anderson makes at least two 3-pointers
  • Rudy Gobert tied his season-high with nine made free throws on a season-high 14 attempts
  • Minnesota shot 80.8% from the free throw line, eclipsing the 80% mark for just the second straight game, and the fifth time in their 23 games since the All-Star Break
  • Friday was the second time KAT and Gobert have each had a 20/10 performance in the same game
  • OKC scored 30 points in the paint, marking the fifth time the Wolves have held an opponent to 30 or less in a game

Next Up

The Wolves will fly to Denver this afternoon to take on the Nuggets in a Sunday Showdown for Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals. Fans can watch the 9:30 PM CT tip on either Bally Sports North or TNT.

Game Highlights