The Minnesota Timberwolves welcomed the Los Angeles Lakers back to Target center for the second time in as many weeks on Saturday night, but with a much different outlook. Unlike the first matchup in Downtown Minneapolis, L.A. star LeBron James celebrated his 39th birthday by taking the floor at Target Center in front of a sold out crowd.
James wanted to start out his 40th year on the right foot, as he was very aggressive in getting downhill and collapsing the defense in the paint, setting a tone for the Lakers that remained throughout the quarter. LeBron was involved early, taking five quick shots, before Anthony Davis really asserted himself on both ends of the floor, helping the Lakers out to a quick 17-6 lead early. He was excellent contesting shots at the rim, active with his hands on the perimeter, and collected eight rebounds in the first period; he followed that up on the offensive end with some incredibly tough finishes around the cup and using his speed to get past Rudy Gobert for scores at the rim en route to scoring 17 first quarter points on 8/9 shooting. And when he wasn’t scoring, he was finding his teammates; his five dimes were one shot of the Wolves’ six in the first 12 minutes.
As for the Wolves, their turnover problems took center stage once again, especially in the back-court. James and old friend Jarred Vanderbilt did a tremendous job of 1) hounding Timberwolves guards on inbounds passes and 2) laying in the weeds when big men tried to throw outlet passes. Gobert committed a turnover in each situation, clearly frustrating Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch, who spoke pregame about the team’s needs to improve upon their turnover woes from the last 10 games.
When Minnesota wasn’t turning it over, they were efficient, just like they were against the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday. But unlike that game, the scoring was more balanced. Anthony Edwards didn’t attempt a shot in the first three minutes, while Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns scored the first six for the Timberwolves. Ant’s first bucket started a 10-2 run that got Minnesota back into it, before the Wolves and Davis traded buckets over the final four minutes and change.
L.A. led 31-29 after one, thanks to scoring an impressive 24 points in the paint and converting five Minnesota turnovers into nine points.
Things looked rocky to start the second when James checked back in and immediately made his presence felt. He recorded an assist on the first possession before taking an interception back for a mammoth dunk. Rui Hachimura added an and-1 and Minnesota was quickly in another nine-point hole as a result of turning it over on three of their first four trips.
Finch then went back to Conley, who helped get the ball moving. Troy Brown Jr., who played as the ninth man on Saturday, was a beneficiary. He made a nice corner pocket triple, creating some energy that carried over to the defensive end, where he corralled a couple of contested rebounds and made a nice steal off the ball to help. Those plays fueled a 9-0 Wolves run, which included four points off a pair of nice attacks from Reid, who was terrific all half. Naz joined forces with Edwards to score 19 of the Wolves’ 32 second quarter points on a combined 7/8 shooting from the floor and 5/5 from the free throw line.
Wolves fans held their breath, though, when Edwards turned his ankle after an acrobatic layup going at Davis; Ant immediately grabbed his ankle, was hopping around in pain, took a foul, and Olympic long jumped on one leg back through the tunnel. But in typical Ant fashion, less than 90 seconds later he returned to the floor, where he played rock-paper-scissors with Brown Jr. to determine who would come out of the game while the Lakers shot free throws.
Nothing like a game of rock-paper-scissors to enter the game pic.twitter.com/J5bBVCeQ3r— Katie Emmer Storm (@KatieStorm) December 31, 2023
Reid’s flurry at the end of the quarter gave him a team-high 16 points at halftime, which helped Minnesota grab a lead at the break, 61-57. It would’ve been larger had it not been for Los Angeles scoring 14 points off of 12 turnovers and 11 second chance points off of six offensive rebounds.
The vibes to start the third quarter could’ve been better, as Towns picked up his fourth foul just 66 seconds into the half on a classic “hook” of his defender on the drive. Bu the made up for it with a left slot 3 and didn’t pick up another foul before Reid subbed in for him around the 7:00 mark in Finch’s usual rotation.
A pair of athletic takes from LeBron down the lane and some free throws from Davis kept the Lakers within a couple possessions, but it felt like Minnesota was starting to take control of the game as L.A. entered their non-LeBron minutes in the third quarter; Conley dropped a pair of sweet dimes, while Gobert and Reid added thunderous dunks to get the crowd back into it. But Prince had other plans. The beloved former Wolves’ vet drained a transition triple to bring the game back within 3, before Lakers Head Coach Darvin Ham put James back in to try and fully flip the momentum.
L.A. tied it at 75, but Minnesota used a 7-2 run to close the quarter — behind a huge dunk from Reid and an and-1 from Gobert with Russell bear-hugging him — to head into the fourth with an 82-77 lead.
Something poetic about Rudy Gobert finishing at the rim for an and-1 despite D'Angelo Russell bear hugging him— Canis Hoopus (@canishoopus) December 31, 2023
Just like he did in the third, Prince hit another big left slot 3 early in the fourth to swing the momentum before giving his patented 3-point celebration to the Wolves’ bench. Both teams went back and fourth at the free throw line before Christian Wood tied the game at 87 with a left corner 3.
All hell broke loose after that.
McDaniels tried to climb the ladder for a monster throw-down over Davis, but AD wiped it away, resulting in a runaway LeBron train down the floor. After crossing LeBron up a few possessions earlier but missing the 3, Ant smelled blood in the water. He exploded above the rim for a huge block, and LeBron know about it. The two jawed for several possessions, which only got Ant going.
“It means a lot to win against LeBron. I’ve been watching him play since I was a kid. Any time you get to suit up against one of the greatest players of all time, you should be ready to fuckin’ go,” Edwards said postgame. “I was ready to go two days ago when I realized he was playing. The other game he didn’t play, I was mad about it. You want to play him because I know he’s winding down. I don’t know how many more years he’s got, so I’m looking forward to every matchup I got with him.”
After Davis went brickin’ for chicken and secured everyone in the crowd a free Chick-Fil-A lunch tomorrow, Edwards danced with AD before a huge iso bucket on the right wing, then drained a 3 on the next trip down, fully igniting a sellout crowd. He kept his foot on the gas down the stretch, scoring six more points in the final three minutes to match the six the Timberwolves got from Conley, who made two banger 3s to help keep the Lakers at bay before they made one last charge with under a minute to go.
McDaniels fouled out on the next trip and received a technical foul for his complaints of the call, opening the door for a four-point Lakers possession to get within three with 31.1 seconds to go. Conley missed a great look from 3 on the next trip, before the ball found LeBron on the run down the floor. He pulled up from the left slot and buried a shot and immediately looked back at referee #89 Dannica Mosher for her ruling.
Jeez Bron pic.twitter.com/8r1JhXBH2q— CJ Fogler account may or may not be notable (@cjzero) December 31, 2023
As she held two fingers in the air, the Lakers immediately asked for a review upon a Timberwolves timeout.
LeBron pointing at the review screen pic.twitter.com/tYoPhz4SFF— CJ Fogler account may or may not be notable (@cjzero) December 31, 2023
But it didn’t go their way, as the officials couldn’t find enough video evidence to overturn the call on the floor.
LeBron couldn’t get a shot off after Edwards split a pair and the Wolves took it 108-106 to spoil James’ 39th birthday.
Edwards finished with a team-high 31 points on 10/23 shooting to go along with three blocks, while Davis and James combined for 59 points on 22 of their 38 shot attempts to lead Los Angeles.
This story will be updated throughout the night after player and coach media availabilities.
Mike Conley, Catch-and-Shoot King
Do you ever stop yourself and think about how much different of a viewing experience watching Timberwolves games was before President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly pulled the trigger on the move that acquired Mike Conley from the Utah Jazz? I do it often, and tonight was yet another one of those nights — and not just because D’Angelo Russell (who left tonight’s game early with a tailbone injury) suited up for the opposing team.
Conley after checking back in at the 4:10 mark of the fourth quarter scored or assisted on nine of the team’s final 14 points, which included two big catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. The first one came at the 3:40 mark (after getting an offensive rebound earlier in the possession), which gave the Wolves a 97-93 lead. And the second came with just 36.0 seconds left, when Ant made a perfect corner kick leading to a cash money triple to extend the lead to 107-100.
“I love it, honestly. It’s my favorite part of the game, late game, I feel more confident at that moment of the game than any part of the game. Maybe because it’s like I know I have to shoot it, I know it means a lot,” Conley explained in the locker room postgame. “Throughout the course of one quarter, second quarter, third quarter, I might pass or think of other things, but in the fourth I’m thinking if I get the ball, I have to make this shot and it’s fun. I just think about making it and seeing it go in, visualizing that. I’ve done it a lot. I keep telling Ant to trust me, and he’s doing it. Hopefully we keep going.”
“Oh, I’m looking for him,” Edwards said, explaining his mentality when opposing defenses show two defenders to him late in the game. “Because if they put two on me or if I can’t get my shot off, I’m looking for Mike. I know he’s in the corner and I’m looking for him every time.”
Conley and Edwards combined for 19 of the Wolves’ 26 fourth quarter points, connecting on four of their nine 3-point attempts.
With three more makes on them tonight, Conley is now 37/78 (47.4%) on catch-and-shoot treys this season — the ninth-best percentage in the NBA among players with at least 75 attempts. The 36-year-old is now 6/11 on 3-pointers in the clutch, which is tied for the sixth-most makes in the league, while his 54.5% clip ranks third among the nine players with at least six 3-point makes in the clutch this season.
Minnesota is now a league-leading 11-1 in the clutch this season in large part due to Conley’s play. His ability to organize the offense with the best of them in the league while also being more than willing to put the ball in Edwards’ hands and space to the corner is invaluable; and that’s before you consider all the other leadership intangibles he brings from his 16 years of experience.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are a completely different team in the clutch with Conley on the floor than they were before he arrived, and that will only shine through brighter and brighter as the season goes on. No matter what happens when the offseason arrives, you can bet the Wolves will do all they can to bring No. 10 back next season and beyond.
Towns Struggles For Third Straight Game
After a pair of lackluster performances in the wake of his return from a one-game absence due to a sore left knee, Karl-Anthony Towns couldn’t find his rhythm for a third straight game on Saturday night. The three-time All-Star scored nine points and took just seven shots, while turning the ball over five times and generating two assists, and committing five fouls. Towns was a game-low -23 in his 29 minutes.
This recent stretch is certainly unfortunate given how essential Towns has been to the Wolves’ success — especially in the second halves of games — throughout their franchise-best 24-7 start. Even more so when considering that the beauty of Towns’ play thus far has been the way he’s been able to let the game come to him and attack the openings the defense gives him; whether that is posting up a smaller defenders at a career-best efficiency, driving on slower, quick bigs, spotting up for slot 3s, or providing an outlet in the pick-and-pop game, Towns hasn’t tried to force things.
But since his return you can tell KAT has been antsy to make his imprint on the game and force his way onto the scoring sheet. The result has been an uptick in turnovers, offensive hook fouls on the drive, and too many rushed shots. The good news in all of this is that the Wolves have still found a way to go 2-1 in those games (3-1 including the game he missed) and there isn’t quite as much pressure on the big man to score 20, 25 or 30 points a night like there has been in previous seasons.
But considering the Timberwolves’ next six games all come against playoff caliber opponents, they badly need him to find some kind of rhythm if they want to continue their impressive run of wins over some of the NBA’s top teams. Minnesota’s next two opponents — the New York Knicks (since Mitchell Robinson went down) and New Orleans Pelicans — have both struggled to contain stretch bigs this season, so Towns has a couple good spots to get back on track.
The Timberwolves will fly to New York City tonight ahead of a New Year’s Day showdown at Madison Square Garden with the New York Knicks, who on Saturday afternoon traded for former Toronto Raptors forward O.G. Anunoby. Fans can watch the 2 PM CT tip on either Bally Sports North or NBA TV.