The Minnesota Timberwolves were back in action on Thursday night, hosting Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers in front of a raucous, sell-out crowd at Target Center eager to wash the taste of a frustrating loss in Philadelphia out of their mouths ahead of the holiday weekend.
With both teams playing on the second night of a back-to-back, someone was bound to sit out on either side. Unfortunately for those who paid record-high prices for a regular season game in Downtown Minneapolis, Lakers star LeBron James was ruled out with peroneal tendinopathy in his left ankle — a fancy way of saying ‘rest’ so L.A. wouldn’t be fined for sitting a star during a nationally televised game on NBA TV.
Davis, meanwhile, was questionable with a sprain and bone bruise on his left ankle, but he played and made his presence felt early. The eight-time All-Star picked up where Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid left off in the mid-range last night with a pair of jumpers over the fully extended arms of Rudy Gobert. Davis also battled inside to earn two more scores in the paint and a couple of free throws too, en route to a 10-point, four-rebound first quarter to pace L.A.
After getting past the first line of the Lakers’ defense rather easily for a few layups and corner kick-outs to create open 3s, the Wolves’ offense became rather stagnant until a Karl-Anthony Towns 3-pointer after the first media timeout breathed some life into the team. Anthony Edwards and Gobert maintained that energy on the defensive end of the floor with a pair of blocks on the same possession to force a shot clock violation.
Once Mike Conley, Jaden McDaniels and Gobert exited, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Naz Reid and Kyle Anderson came in looking to improve upon the 16 non-garbage time points they scored in Philly on Wednesday. That trio played with incredible energy, effort and intensity, as they combined for 10 points in the first quarter alone; Reid drained a pair of 3s, while NAW was a madman defensively, racking up three steals with heavy ball pressure and forcing a fourth turnover blowing up a Lakers half-court trip.
The Wolves played exceptionally well in transition, as Minnesota scored nine points off of the Lakers’ six first quarter turnovers. Two of those came by way of a huge Edwards lob from Alexander-Walker:
Reid stole it on the ensuing trip and tried to find Edwards up top again, but couldn’t connect on a play that would’ve blown the roof off of the building. Edwards had to settle for just 12 points on 5/6 shooting in the period, after which the Wolves led 36-32 instead of 36-29 thanks to a Taurean Prince buzzer-beater. Thanks in large part to their success pushing the pace in transition and getting into early offense, Minnesota’s 13 assists on 15 makes was a season-high for any quarter.
Anderson continued his strong play from the first into the second, where he quickly had an and-1 off a great cut to the middle of the floor before finishing over Austin Reaves. Slow-Mo went to the bench with five points, three rebounds, two assists and a steal in what was one of his better halves so far this season.
The aforementioned Reaves was the story of the second quarter for L.A., who needed someone other than Davis to step up with consistent scoring. He scored seven quick points in the first 5:00 of the period, but the Lakers didn’t have anything other than that. As a result, the Wolves were able build a nice eight-point lead by the time Reaves exited at the 7:00 mark of the quarter by way of Towns scoring seven of his own and Conley adding his third score, a 3-pointer coming from the two-man game with Gobert.
Once Davis re-entered, the Lakers continued to run everything through him. He quickly got to the free throw line, added another score, and ran the floor well in transition to seal smaller defenders across the front of the rim. Once the Timberwolves were able to start successfully preventing Davis from getting a touch in scoring positions, Rui Hachimura joined the mix with a pair of mid-range jumpers to at least keep the Wolves at bay.
Minnesota once again got good production from McDaniels, who added a pair of 3s and a downhill score for eight points in the quarter to give him 12 for the half — his second straight double-digit scoring opening 24 minutes. Edwards led the way with 14, while Towns and McDaniels were right behind him with 12. Those three became the first starters to all score 20+ points in a game this season on Wednesday, and looked well on their way to doing it again on Thursday.
Despite all the good for the Wolves offensively, they took their foot off the gas too often and didn’t care about every possession. Gobert committing three turnovers trying to do too much with the ball certainly exemplified that. The Wolves’ struggles continued at the end of the half, too. Minnesota let a nine-point lead slip to just four, 63-59, at halftime, as Prince hit another late clock three to send the Lakers into the locker room with some momentum.
It had the feeling of “well, if the Wolves can just lock in they can open up the game.” Unfortunately for the Timberwolves, the exact opposite of that happened in the third quarter. Minnesota played with their food for the entire period, playing lackadaisical basketball on both ends of the floor. The ball didn’t move enough offensively and the Wolves continued to miss layups and open 3s, and they didn’t play with any intensity at the point of attack on the defensive end of the floor.
Davis didn’t even play particularly well in the first half of the frame, either, yet L.A. cut into the lead thanks to four points apiece from Reaves, Hachimura and Cam Reddish. The Lakers even took a brief one-point lead on a 3-pointer from Hachimura, but Edwards and Reid responded with back-to-back 3-pointers to end the frame with a four-point lead, 87-83.
The 6-1 run from the Wolves to close the third carried the momentum into the fourth quarter. Minnesota quickly ballooned the lead to eight with two quick buckets, allowing them to play more freely and aggressively.
Los Angeles went to a 2-3 zone to try and disrupt that flow, but Towns found the middle of the zone and made the Lakers pay with a beautiful floater over Jaxson Hayes, before coming right back at him on the next trip for a hard-earned deuce. Those scores were important, as they worked to maintain a three-possession lead as Head Coach Darvin Ham’s group generated some momentum offensively.
Ant took it from there. The 2023 All-Star rose the occasion, turning on the jets past Prince to deliver an and-1 that got the lead back to seven and Edwards fired up. On the next trip, Edwards found Alexander-Walker in the corner for a banger 3 that seemingly secured the result.
NAWWWW LET IT FLY pic.twitter.com/TltgD4zu6X— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) December 22, 2023
As he made his way back to the bench, Ant was as animated as he was all night, dapping up everyone in sight.
The Wolves cruised from there with no scares (unless you had Minnesota -8.5 and Reaves’ final bucket ruined that) to a 118-111 win.
This story will be updated throughout the night after coach and player media availability.
Karl-Anthony Towns’ Status
Towns left the game with 5:07 fourth quarter walking awkwardly and immediately went back to the locker room for further evaluation. He did not return. Because of how late KAT exited, the team did not provide an official injury designation, and we won’t hear official word from the team on Towns’ status for Saturday’s game in Sacramento until early evening on Friday.
Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch did not provide an update on Towns other than saying, “hopefully it’s nothing too serious” in an unconcerned, matter-of-fact tone. Finch added that Towns “took a shot” in the second half, but did not specify where or how.
I saw Towns in the locker room walking without a limp, and he was seen in the next room receiving treatment on his left leg postgame. You could hear Towns laughing and talking with his teammates as they went through their postgame workouts and treatments, so the hope is obviously that KAT avoided any type of serious or long-term injury.
We’ll await official word.
The Importance of Learning in the Regular Season
While Wolves fans obviously want their favorite team to run what works every single time down the floor, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley made some good points in the locker room that, well, it’s not that simple.
Take the two-man game with the two of them, for instance. Our friend Dane Moore asked Gobert about how the Wolves tend to run more of that action when the opponent brings two to Edwards when he has the ball.
Gobert gave an insightful answer.
“We go to it, I mean, we try to go to it regardless. We just try not to abuse it. It’s kind of like not fun [for everyone else]. But you don’t want to abuse it early, maybe in playoff time we’ll run it a lot if we need,” he said. “But right now, we’re just trying to keep learning, you know, running different actions, using different coverages, and it’s really important that we’re able to use the regular season to work on all those different actions.”
Given the personnel the Wolves have, they can play a ton of different ways. But in order to do it, they have to spend good chunks of time in the regular season games actually experimenting with what works and what doesn’t.
Conley explored versatility that in his postgame comments.
“I don’t think I’ve been on a team that has that much in that many ways of attacking you. I’ve been on teams where we spread you out and pick-and-roll and strictly post-up and cut. This team can kind of do both,” Conley said. “We can run. We can play slow. We can grind out a deffensive game, and I think that bodes well for the playoff-style basketball. So we’re preparing for that, ultimately. We’ve still got a ways to go, obviously, but we’re working toward that.”
The more the Timberwolves are able to explore what they can and can’t do successfully on a consistent basis in live game action and still come away with wins, the more seamlessly they’ll be able to adjust on the fly in the playoffs, and the dangerous they’ll be. With how healthy the Wolves have been and the fact that they are now in year three with this coaching staff, the stars are finally aligning for the Timberwolves to form some serious chemistry and peak come the spring.
Elite Paint Defense
Entering Thursday, the Lakers ranked eighth in the league at 54.7 paint points per game. Obviously missing LeBron James and 13.2 PPG in the key is a big factor, but the Wolves held L.A. to just 40 points in the paint on 40 paint attempts, which is about as good as it gets when it comes to defending the Lakers.
Gobert was everywhere at the rim like he usually is, but working to hold Davis (16.1 paint PPG, fourth in the NBA) to just eight points on 11 shots deserves to be celebrated. Breaking it down further, Davis scored just two paint points after halftime on 1/5 shooting. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year was physical with AD when he put the ball on the deck, and Gobert’s teammates were terrific at digging down on Davis’s drives, swiping at the ball and making him second guess shots inside.
Minnesota will need to carry that effort forward on Saturday against Domas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox, who rank 12th and 14th, respectively in scoring in the paint.
Minnesota will travel to Nor-Cal for a Saturday night showdown with the Sacramento Kings, who defeated the Wolves in the NBA In-Season Tournament 124-111 back on November 24.
Fans can catch the 9 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North.