The Minnesota Timberwolves returned home on Thursday evening to host the Dallas Mavericks, who were playing on the second night of a home/road back-to-back and, partly as a result, without superstar guard Luka Dončić, who missed the contest due to a left quad contusion.
It was a busy day for the Wolves organization, whose minority partners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez reportedly agreed to exercise their option to purchase an additional 40% of the Timberwolves and Minnesota Lynx. There was a deadline for the duo to exercise the option by December 31. The business partners will now have 60-to-90 days to close on the deal, which would grant them a majority interest (80%) of the two franchises; they will also have the financial backing of former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and the Carlyle Group — U.S.-based private equity firm — to close the deal, according to Sportico.
Business was the theme of the day and it carried over into the first quarter.
From the jump, the Timberwolves wanted to get back to how they’ve carried themselves all season — using strong defense and playing through Anthony Edwards to generate some good energy from a raucous home crowd and ride the wave from there.
Those in the arena could sense that Edwards had that look in his eyes. Whether it was him feeling disrespected by the Mavericks assigning Derrick Jones Jr. to guard him or something else, he was moving differently. First, his scoring popped as he assertively attacked Jones Jr. for a pair of scores with a trip to the free throw line mixed in for six quick points.
easy work for AE. pic.twitter.com/JMvgFteQn4— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) December 29, 2023
Then, as Dallas started to more aggressively trap him, he found Rudy Gobert on the roll for a bucket that prompted a Mavs timeout and later in the pocket for a trip to the free throw line. It was encouraging to see Edwards not only find Gobert out of necessity, but set up the defense to be able to open up a look for his All-Star big man. Ant finished the first with 14 points on 5/7 shooting, three assists, two rebounds and a steal.
After working through a pair of missed jumpers and an out of control turnover, Karl-Anthony Towns really settled. KAT drained a couple of left slot 3s off the catch and added a nifty baseline drive into traffic before throwing it up above the tree line for a thunderous Gobert alley-oop. Gobert exited his first stint with a very active six points and a four rebounds.
Naz Reid picked up where he left off, immediately draining a 3 and then adding another one minute later to get the bench scoring started.
On the other end, the Wolves’ defense was active especially at the rim. Gobert was excellent in contesting seemingly every shot the Mavericks took in the paint while he was on the floor; Jaden McDaniels made a couple of crazy blocks of Dereck Lively II at the rim; and even Edwards got after it with some terrific contests of Jones Jr. and Dante Exum. Their efforts resulted in Dallas scoring just two points in the paint in the first quarter, forcing the Mavericks to rely on 3-point shooting. Had it not been for their 4/9 start from deep, Dallas would’ve been in a deeper hole than 37-26 after one.
Minnesota didn’t carry play with the same juice to start the second quarter, as Dallas dragged them into the muck. If you missed the 2022-23 Timberwolves, this was the quarter for you.
Outside of two nice Gobert scores on a put-back and a push shot after a corner rifle pass from Towns, there wasn’t much to get excited about. Edwards made a couple of highlight plays defensively that included a pick-six, and Gobert made a great cross-court pass to Nickeil Alexander-Walker for a corner 3, but that was about it.
Reid has been a go-to guy for energy creating plays, but quickly picked up a pair of questionable offensive fouls and headed to the bench just two minutes into the frame, which set the tone for the entire team letting frustration over officiating bleed into their play on both ends of the floor. Edwards picked up a technical after understandably lashing out at Evan Scott, who got defensive after terribly officiated first half.
Minnesota committed 10 turnovers in the second quarter alone, which turned into 13 Dallas points. Partly as a result, Jason Kidd’s squad scored 16 points in the paint in the second quarter after just two in the first. The Mavericks struggled to create consistent offense in the half-court outside of Tim Hardaway Jr.’s pull-up shooting in pick-and-roll and Dwight Powell hanging out around the rim for a pair of easy ones.
Despite shooting 60% from the floor and 10/14 (71.4%) from deep, the Wolves only led 61-56 at the break because of their inability to take care of the ball.
The Timberwolves started the third quarter flat for the second game in a row, which sucked the energy out of a Target Center crowd that was eager to get loud and help will the team back in front.
Minnesota couldn’t curtail its turnover issues, as three more giveaways from the starters led to a four Dallas points. Beyond that, the Wolves moved the ball much better in the opening minutes of the second half, but just couldn’t buy an open shot.
Defensively, the Wolves struggled to get over screens, which allowed Jaden Hardy and Hardaway Jr. to waltz into open mid-range and 3-point jumpers, which kept the Mavs hanging around — and even out in front, 74-73 at one point.
Minnesota sensed they needed to kick it into gear from there. Edwards immediately came down and scored on a long 2 after pump faking a 3, before Conley deployed a nasty ball fake to part the seas in the slot for a wide open layup to quickly retake a 77-74 lead. McDaniels added a scoop and score touchdown dunk to get the lead out to six, prompting a timeout.
CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF ✈️ pic.twitter.com/GTEeXE9NGQ— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) December 29, 2023
Dallas responded nicely with an after timeout 3, but Reid and Edwards called back with eight straight points to balloon the gap to 10 — and perhaps more importantly get the crowd back into it.
Hardaway Jr. was the only player giving the Mavericks anything offensively down the stretch of the quarter. The former Michigan star poured in 10 huge points (although did miss a pair of free throws) in the face of Minnesota finding a rhythm offensively, going shot-for-shot with pretty much the entire Wolves team. Hardaway Jr. missed just once
Minnesota’s effort became a 25-17 run over the final six minutes to take a seven-point lead, 98-91, into the fourth quarter.
The tense, back-and-forth nature of the third quarter continued into the final frame, as did Hardaway Jr. Dallas’s sixth man drained a 3-pointer to open the period, piling some palpable anxiety onto the crowd. But Gobert quelled that with a huge trailer dunk in transition over Lively II.
That newfound energy gave encouragement that raised an unlikely hero to sustain the lead with Edwards on the bench to start the quarter — Kyle Anderson. Slow-Mo has struggled to repeat his excellent 2022-23 campaign, highlighted by his 2/22 (9%) shooting from downtown, but made a pair of left corner jumpers (one 3 and one with a toe on the line) off of Conley kick-outs in PnR — shots he was comfortable knocking down last season.
Those five points became even more crucial, as the Wolves scored just two points from the 9:00 mark to the 5:39 mark — when Edwards walked into a transition triple to extend the lead to double digits.
Both teams went nearly two minutes with scoring before Dallas put together a 7-0 run to cut the lead to just five with 2:33 to play. But Minnesota got a big 3 from Conley to effectively put Dallas away with 1:40 to go, before the final buzzer sounded with a score of 118-110 on the board.
Edwards ended his big night with a season-high 44 points, headlined by a season-high 18 free throw attempts, 6/10 shooting from deep, and four stocks.
This story will be updated throughout the night with key takeaways after coach and player media availability.
Anthony Edwards Saves the Wolves From a Bad Loss
Coming off a brutal blowout in Oklahoma City on Tuesday, Edwards was determined to right the ship on Thursday. Ant scored 25 points on 7/16 shooting (plus a 9/13 mark from the free throw line) in the loss, but he wasn’t satisfied, and his frame of mind entering the game exemplified that.
“Just shoot it. I put it in my mind before the game, like, ‘I’m probably going to shoot it every time I touch it.’ So, I came in with the mindset that whatever I was going to do, I was going to do,” he said. “I feel like last game I left bullets in the chamber. So, I ain’t want to do that this game.”
He certainly let ‘em all fly on Thursday, but that wasn’t necessarily the team’s gameplan coming in.
Ant with a season-high 44 points tonight vs. Dallas.— Alan Horton (@WolvesRadio) December 29, 2023
I asked Mike Conley if it was the gameplan for him to be dominant early...
"No, it was not the gameplan. That's just Ant. Ant being Ant. I think he felt some type of way about the last game & took it upon himself to lead." pic.twitter.com/NIpyWW4nB3
Edwards scored 44 points, shooting 6/12 on 2s, 6/11 on 3s and connected on 14 of his career-high-tying 18 free throw attempts. He did his damage at all three levels of the floor, and — outside of his six turnovers — seemingly pressed enough buttons at the right times. Ant has such a wonderfully innate sense of when to grab hold of the game and tonight was certainly an example of that. He wanted to send a message early and kept his foot on the gas all night long, carving up all sorts of different coverages from switching 1 through 5 to a shell zone to two on the ball, and everything in between.
Another impressive element of Edwards’ performance is that he did a lot of his work from a standstill in isolation. Dallas worked hard in its switching concept to take away the Edwards/Gobert pick-and-roll after Minnesota got good looks out of it early in the first quarter.
“As long as we continue to develop our playmaking out of [the Ant/Rudy PnR], the scoring out of it is pretty potent. Always has been. We just have to have the benefit of all the additional plays (that come out of it),” Finch said postgame. “It’s certainly something we can keep featuring more and more. But tonight, all the heavy switching, it boiled down to a lot of iso-stuff. Fortunately Ant had one of those special nights where he really had it going.”
When the playoffs come, there will be a few games where scoring talent can win out, and Edwards’ ceiling is as high as that of any player in the league when he’s dancing on an island with a defender. Finding the right balance of isolation scoring and playing within the offense is important, but when Edwards is rolling like he was on Thursday, you just sit back and enjoy the show.
Costly Turnovers Spoil An Efficient Offensive Night
One of the cooler elements of this now-23-7 Timberwolves team is that they are infrequently satisfied after wins. Each player and coach recognizes the potential the group has and evidently refuse to fall victim to complacency.
“I think that’s a good sign, honestly. Because even with not playing as well as we should or not playing our best, we’re still able to find a way to win. That’s what good teams do – win the games they’re supposed to,” Slow-Mo said postgame. “We’re going to get better, we’re going to get those things cleaned up and we’re going to get clicking at the right time. That’s the goal. ...it could get scary once we finally figure it out. It could get scary.”
Finch is probably the best example of that. He was pretty disappointed with his team’s play in general, starting with their 22 turnovers, which turned into 29 points the other way. While the Wolves did shoot 15 more free throws than the Mavs, Dallas shot 16 more field goals than Minnesota, which was the only reason the game wasn’t closer to a 15 or 20-point win.
“I think everyone at times is too worried about getting their own offense going. I mean, Ant had a hot start, and so we gotta ride that hot start. But then when that hot start is over, then you gotta start making plays. And other people, if they haven’t touched the ball for a little while, they can’t just decide that they’re gonna put their head down and go to the hoop or that they’re gonna jack it because they haven’t shot it for a little while,” Finch said, in what was pretty clearly aimed at Towns, who shot 3/12 tonight.
“And that’s everybody that’s done that at one point in time. I thought at the end of the second quarter, in particular, we all were having a pity party for ourselves offensively. There’s a lot of ways to be immature. And generally, this team has been very mature. But we gotta grow up offensively. It’s time.”
Finch made it very clear that his stars need to be accountable for their mistakes; Edwards (six) and Towns (five) — who played one of his infamously out of control games — combined for half of the team’s 22 giveaways.
“They have great freedom. Maybe too much, and that’s on me. They have great freedom, but they have the responsibility to make the game easy for everyone. They’ll do it. It’s not all the time that they don’t. When you have guys that are natural-born scorers, sometimes if they’re not scoring, they don’t feel like they’re impacting the game,” Finch continued. “But there’s a lot of guys that can score on our team. 22 assists for a team that scores 118 points — I know a lot were from the free throw line — but we need to be upwards of 30. Yeah, we got a lot of work to do on the offensive end.”
He may be frustrated now, but Finch won’t let that linger into Saturday. Edwards explained that Finch’s approach is a key reason the Wolves are still yet to lose two games in a row.
“I think Finchy does a great job of not dwelling on it, especially the bad losses. We had a bad loss last game. He didn’t really dwell on it,” Ant said. “We watched film and we practiced more live, got it out of our system and was ready to play today. So, I think, shout out to him, man. He does a great job every night.”
Finch may in time focus more on the Timberwolves’ shooting efficiency.
“When we didn’t turn the ball over, we shot the lights out. We were shooting 60 from the field and 70 from 3 at half, and then 15 turnovers,” he said. “We’re going places where there’s nowhere to go. It’s on us. They’re just bad decisions. ... When we space and we make the extra pass and trust that it might come back to us, then we’re really good.”
Gobert was an important release from the Wolves’ turnover woes; he scored 20 points on a perfect 7/7 shooting in addition to an encouraging 6/7 mark from the free throw line. Although Dallas’s switching concept blew up a lot of his rolls through the lane, he still impacted the game offensively by adding a pair of put-backs, drawing fouls that helped get the Wolves in the bonus, and setting screens for Edwards to force switches onto easier targets for Ant in isolation. On nights when the rest of the team is struggling to take care of the ball, Gobert can serve as a stabilizing force that makes enough plays to keep the Wolves ahead on the scoreboard when the clock runs out, and tonight was certainly one of those nights.
The Wolves’ homestand will continue on Saturday night, as Minnesota will welcome LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Fans can catch the 7 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North.