The Minnesota Timberwolves closed as 19.5-point favorites before their matchup with a Portland Trail Blazers team missing Damian Lillard, Jerami Grant, Anfernee Simons, Jusuf Nurkic and Cam Reddish tipped off.
What could possibly go wrong? Surely nothing!
Well, according to the Action Network, Portland’s +19.5 outright, 107-105 win over the Wolves in Downtown Minneapolis is the NBA’s longest regular season underdog outright win since 1995.
Not only is that horrifying to think about in general, but considering the stakes for the Timberwolves, you can make a very sound argument that it’s the worst loss in the history of the second-worst franchise (by winning percentage) in the history of American professional sports. Now that is saying something.
Minnesota entered the day as the No. 9 seed, largely in control of their own destiny not just to the seven spot, but also to the No. 6 position and avoid the Play-In Tournament entirely.
Your Sunday update:— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) April 2, 2023
Wolves' best path to the #6 seed looks something like this:
• Win out
• LAC loses vs LAL
• LAL loses to PHX
• Win out
• GSW loses to DEN + SAC
Key games today:
• #5 GSW (+2.5) @ #1 DEN
• #4 PHX (-5.5) @ #10 OKC
• #7 LAL (-11.5) @ HOU pic.twitter.com/AFQi1LipWn
Those scenarios hinged on the Timberwolves winning out, though; and, of course, because they’re the Wolves, they showed up to the arena without the requisite mental and physical fortitude to beat even the weakest (and most aggressively tanking) of their four remaining opponents.
“I mean, it could be mental, it could be physical. Just extra efforts, you know? When you need to make three, four efforts and you only make one or two, it’s not enough against a team that’s making all the effort necessary to win the play or to win the game,” Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch said postgame. “When you don’t play hard and you don’t make all the efforts, you don’t disrespect your opponent, you disrespect yourself. That’s the worst thing.”
Now, Minnesota will likely need to win out just to get into the 7/8 Play-In game for the rights to take the No. 2 seed Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs. However, with the Dallas Mavericks’ 132-130 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Wolves have all but secured a postseason berth of some kind.
Let’s get into the takeaways.
An Inflection Point in Karl-Anthony Towns’ Leadership Timeline
“Like I said, I got a lot of things to say tomorrow at practice. I’m gonna go in there and do what I gotta do, speak up for our team. I know the words I say will help us win games. So I’m just trying to do that. That’s all I’m gonna say. Keep it in the locker room.”
That is a direct quote from Karl-Anthony Towns in the locker room on Friday following the Wolves’ 123-111 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Towns on Sunday scored eight points on just three shot attempts, grabbed nine rebounds, was in foul trouble for most of the second half, and missed three free throws in a must-win game his team lost by two.
To say what he said on Friday, then come out today with poor energy, awful body language about the officiating, take only three shots and lose at nearly full strength to a non-playoff team without six of its seven best players is the type of performance that loses you all your credibility in the locker room.
Finch wasn’t pleased with Towns performance, either.
“Yeah, you know, we talked a lot about KAT trying to fit into the flow of the offense, and I think he was a bit too passive tonight. So we needed him to still stay aggressive,” Finch said. “I thought in his second shift when he went out there, he drew a lot of fouls, but, you know, he wasn’t aggressive throughout the rest of the opportunities.
Is the loss today all on Towns? Of course not. But the Timberwolves absolutely would’ve won — and comfortably at that — if KAT brought the best (or even average) version of himself. Sunday is another smudge on a resume with a growing list of suboptimal performances in games with big time stakes.
“I don’t know. Yeah, definitely our rhythm is gone,” Finch said in response to a question about why his team’s offense is sputtering. “I think our shot distribution is out of whack a little bit. I think guys are maybe in their feelings a little bit, trying to figure it out.”
Reading between the lines, it sure felt like a thinly veiled shot in the moment and does hours later, too. I can’t imagine Finch was all too pleased with Towns demonstratively announcing his feelings on Friday — which to a coach could’ve come off like KAT knew the answers for fixing the offense better than his coach — and then playing how he did Sunday.
Needless to say, the Wolves cannot get where they want to go without Towns. He has to be more aggressive, especially from deep, and needs to make quicker decisions with the ball in his hands. If KAT can’t generate those 3-point looks on his own, it’s on Finch to make sure Towns is both a focal point of the offense and playing up to his potential.
And if the two parties can’t do those things, the Wolves will miss the playoffs.
A Problematic Defensive Game Plan
The Timberwolves began the game playing in a deep drop coverage against pick-and-roll and the Blazers made them pay in short order. Portland started the game 6/6 in the short mid-range area (4-14 feet) and basically got whatever shot they wanted out of high PnR. As a result, Skylar Mays and Trendon Watford eased into the game and put the Wolves on their heels.
“We came out too soft. We tried to go under a lot of things. That made us soft in the pass so we changed it pretty quickly in the second quarter to be more aggressive and get over stuff,” Finch said.
“I think they were very comfortable in the mid-range, way too comfortable to start the game. And that’s the other thing you have to do with these teams. You have to make sure they’re uncomfortable to start the game, not comfortable start the game because now they feel the rhythm of the game and they feel their confidence growing with each possession.”
It certainly felt as though the Blazers gained more confident in themselves as the game progressed, in large part due to their hot start.
That raises the question, why aren’t the Timberwolves more willing to play a high wall concept with Rudy Gobert on the floor?
We’ve seen Minnesota find success with it (see: win over the Dallas Mavericks on February 13) and Gobert continually proves that he is much better defending in space than he gets credit for. Not to mention that it is the defensive scheme that best activates Anthony Edwards off-ball, still allows the Wolves to utilize Jaden McDaniels as the point-of-attack defender, and enables Towns to be around the rim for rebounds as the low-man. While it isn’t the most sustainable form of defense, it is Minnesota’s best option to make teams uncomfortable. It worked very well against Paul George and Reggie Jackson in the Play-In game and as a means of slowing down Ja Morant in the playoffs last year.
Although the Timberwolves’ defensive rating of 109.2 in today’s loss is better than the best defense in the NBA this season (Cleveland, 110.1), it was clear that their defensive game plan played a key role in the Blazers’ maintaining confidence in attacking the Timberwolves’ perimeter defense down the stretch for clutch buckets and drawn fouls.
Sometimes when the offense isn’t there, loading a defensive bullet into the chamber can be a boost. The high wall helps Minnesota force turnovers and turn those stops into transition buckets; and when the Timberwolves’ half-court offense is playing how it is right now, every bit helps.
Anthony Edwards’ Health
Coming off an 11-point performance on 4/16 shooting against the Lakers on Friday, in which he looked nowhere close to 100% battling through a severe illness, Edwards was eager to his improved health. The 21-year-old All-Star dropped 37 points on 15/30 shooting to go along with six dimes in 38 minutes.
His best stretches included scoring 13 points on 5/6 shooting in the second quarter and delivering nine crucial points in the fourth quarter when the Timberwolves’ offensive execution was severely lacking. Better yet, he took 20 shots in the paint, connecting on 12 of them, and didn’t settle for the mid-range jumpers that have become too frequent on his down scoring nights.
His explosiveness popped for the first time since he injured his ankle last month, too. Edwards getting back to making plays like this one will be important for the swinging the energy of games down the stretch and into the postseason.
If Edwards plays the rest of the way with the force that he displayed on Sunday, the Wolves’ floor should dramatically rise if his teammates can improve their collective offensive output moving forward.
Disappointing Fourth Quarter Execution
Arguably the biggest takeaway from the Wolves’ 2-1 west coast road trip last week was how much the team improved its fourth quarter execution. It was so staggering and apparent that it made fans, myself included, feel like the team had turned a corner in exorcising some of its late-game demons that have been haunting since the first round of the 2022 playoffs.
That all came crashing down on Sunday afternoon.
Minnesota shot 5/12 (41.7%) on 2s and 1/5 (20%) on 3s in the final quarter and committed four turnovers that became four Portland points. Not only was their offense bad, but it actively harmed their defense and forced them to defend in transition or semi-transition more than they should have.
The Wolves turned to empty PnR with Conley and Gobert as the source of consistently great offense in the win over the Sacramento Kings, but ran that action only one time on Sunday. They ran a variation of it out of a horns set where Mike Conley sets a screen for Edwards, who then receives another screen from Towns and a hand-off from Gobert to engage the two-man game. It resulted in Edwards’ go-ahead 3 with just under three minutes left.
Minnesota mostly stuck to horns actions with their closing five of Conley, Edwards, McDaniels, Towns and Gobert, but didn’t get much out of them except for passing and dribbling aimlessly around the perimeter. Finch will have to lean further into the Conley/Gobert PnR battery as a primary action and then have the other three Wolves play off of it if the execution is to improve in the final three games.
Otherwise, the Wolves will make playing defense too easy of an assignment for their opponents and come up short in games that require crisp offensive sets and execution to match.
The Wolves will travel to The Big Apple for a date with the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on Tuesday. You can catch the 6:40 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North.