What can I possibly say? What words are there to describe what we just watched?
We’re all struggling to find them after the Charlotte Hornets just overcame an 18-point deficit with 13 minutes to play to defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves 128-125 and ruin Karl-Anthony Towns’ franchise record and career-high 62 points.
I am struggling to think of any and yet, I must. The Buffalo Bills lost on a haunting field goal to the right of the uprights as it was before with Scott Norwood. This is by no means as important as a playoff game, let alone a second-round one, but this feels like the type of loss that haunts teams.
Ironically, I wrote the recap of the Hornets game weeks ago when the Wolves won by displaying their new found maturity in a game in which Towns, Rudy Gobert and Naz Reid combined for 77 points. They were tactful, smart, and, above all else, professional and disciplined when it came to winning time.
This was the opposite.
I cannot think of a more unsettling, gut-wrenching loss in the Anthony Edwards era of Timberwolves basketball. The stakes weren’t there, but wow. This was a collapse in the biggest way possible. This was a display of immaturity in the biggest way possible. This was a let down in the biggest way thought impossible.
The Wolves have made a habit out of pointing at dunked-on opponents this season. The NBA world is now pointing at them and laughing. Despite being the one seed, despite the best season so far in franchise history, this brings back crushing memories of the team we once were. The hope is those ghosts are only out tonight.
In order to understand how we got here, we need to understand where it started. Let’s talk about what Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch just called “an absolute disgusting performance of defense and immature basketball.”
The Game That Was
The game started in a way that fans desperately wanted to. It was the Karl-Anthony Towns show. 3-pointers were flying. Dunks were hammered. KAT was getting to the line.
But, beneath the surface, the issues were brewing. KAT’s best quarter of the season also coincided with the Wolves worst defensive quarter of the season, a defense that has taken an extreme dip since the start of the year.
In the Wolves last 20 games, their defensive rating has fallen from their early season number approaching 105 to a mediocre 113.3. That’s a league-wide defensive standing that would sit at 11th. While 11th is by no means bad, and the Wolves still have the best defensive rating in the NBA counting the whole season, the preventative side of the ball has taken a step back.
Which is exactly why fans were so excited to see the offense buoyed by Towns, the quintessential offensive superstar. KAT’s defense has taken a step back, but during games like these, it’s hard to say anything but “wow.” Towns had 22 points in the first quarter. He went 8/8 from three in the first half. With Anthony Edwards going scoreless for the large majority of the game, KAT was doing his best impression of Atlas.
The second quarter came and went. KAT had a second 20+ point quarter. His total stood at 44 points of 15/17 shooting. On a night where Joel Hans Embiid went over the seven decade mark, KAT was arguably off to a better start for a historic showing. Twitter was aflame with “Karl-Anthony Towns” slowly taken over the wave of discussions of Embiid’s insane game. The jokes were flying. The laughs were there to be had. And they were had foolishly.
KAT got damn near 50 in the first half!? wtf— Kevin Garnett (@KevinGarnett5KG) January 23, 2024
Since Karl-Anthony Towns entered the league in 2015, only Devin Booker -- who scored 51 in 2H at BOS on 3/24/17 -- has a higher scoring half than the 44-point 1H KAT just put up at Target Center.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) January 23, 2024
According to Finch’s postgame presser, his half-time speech consisted of very few, very measure sentences. “Let’s get back to who we are, so it doesn’t come down to ‘we miss a bunch of shots and they make a ton of shots,’” he said. And he was right. He was absolutely, positively right. And no one listened.
The third quarter began. Karl’s shots were still falling. 46. 50. 54. In quick succession, benchmarks were hit and passed. 58 on 19/25 shots, including 10/12 on 3-pointers.
This is the moment were I felt a sick, retching feeling in the pit of my stomach. The offense depends on stars to get it out of the mud. They were out of the mud tonight. My constant babbling about the lack of an extra offensive gear didn’t matter when their star forward was averaging 19 points per quarter. And yet, I felt it.
I felt it when I saw a tweet, and I will never remember from where, saying this:
“I hope they let KAT go for it.”
Like Anton Ego’s infamous flashback, I was watching the Wolves of old again. The first shot of the fourth, a quarter the Wolves came into with a whopping 15-point lead, was a KAT triple. No harm, no foul, a miss is bound to happen.
And again, and again, the play was drawn up for Towns, who deserved it on his big night, and the shot was missed. The timeline went wild after a doubled baby hook fell off the front iron to give KAT 62. A new career-high, and as such a new franchise record, was set. Still, it felt like there was something wrong.
Chris Finch continued to rip the Timberwolves' performance tonight— Oh no he didn't (@ohnohedidnt24) January 23, 2024
Also said KAT was "hunting a big number" pic.twitter.com/yRdNAKR61o
Coming into this game, the Hornets were the 28th-ranked offense and the 28th-ranked defense. By most standards, they are a bottom-feeder of this years NBA. But, with about eight minutes left to play, the lowly Hornets had erased 10 points of their deficit and were down by only two possessions.
Then, it got very, very dark.
KAT got benched in favor of Kyle Anderson, who promptly got beat off the dribble for a layup. Towns’ forced shots and non-existent defense had put a sour taste on a night that should’ve been lauded. He’s not to blame for this game, as the immaturity permeated the whole roster outside of Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who played excellently for the absent Mike Conley. NAW delivered 18 points as the team’s second-leading scorer (including 4/6 shooting from beyond the arc) which he paired with his usually stellar defensive effort.
But, there’s something all-encompassing about this Karl-Anthony Towns game. On a night where no one else showed up, KAT showed out. On a night where the team’s best player in Anthony Edwards was sick and struggled mightily, Towns picked up the slack. The Wolves were only in this game because of KAT.
But you know what, and I may not be popular in saying this, he certainly isn’t blameless. While Edwards tied his career-high with 11 assists, he was pretty passive all night and didn’t score until the third quarter. Ant scored only nine points on 3/10 shooting in the the second half, proving that it is difficult to flip a switch as the stakes of the game start to rise.
Sure looks like a foul on KAT but as always we'll have to wait for the last 2 minute report pic.twitter.com/7ZopEXrgTv— CJ Fogler account may or may not be notable (@cjzero) January 23, 2024
The last two shots of the game were a Towns missed layup after driving through four (that was pretty clearly a foul) and a KAT missed heave from the logo at the buzzer. After being taken out on his franchise and career-best scoring game, KAT came back in and gave his haters exactly what they had been ready for.
This game was not exclusively played by Karl. But, I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t the embodiment of the KAT experience that I thought we had escaped two years ago.
Towns finished with 62 points on 21/35 FG (11/20 on 2s, 10/15 on 3s and 10/14 on free throws), eight rebounds, two assists and turned it over seven times. KAT became the first player in NBA history to ever make at least 10 2s, 10 3s, and 10 free throws in the same game.
Where We Go From Here:
I may be a bit hyperbolic in my assertion that this is the type of game that haunts a team. But, benching your star player during their chance at a personal summit is a fast way to get into bad vibe territory. The Wolves have shown flashes of maturity this season, largely under the tutelage of Mike Conley, but have clearly taken a step back.
This morning, the NBA released their new power rankings. The Wolves, who once sat at one, saw their slide punctuated by now falling off the top five. Is it unfair that the top seed in the West is not listed as a top-five team? Sure. Is it a valid conclusion? Absolutely.
The Wolves’ defense has begun to crack. The offense was never waterproof to begin with. Yet, this is a team that may stay the course at the upcoming NBA trade deadline on February 8. Despite massive needs for shooting and bench shot creation, the Wolves will at-most move Shake Milton and some of the Iowa Wolves for a bench piece. That’s what a No. 1 seed probably should do. But I think these Wolves can go far, and complacency is the enemy of success. These Wolves became complacent tonight and are being given dunce caps for it. This cannot become an organizational trend.
This Hornets game was the first of a long stretch of easy games against below 500 teams. After an equally long streak against the cream of the crop of both Eastern and Western parties, these games were seen as easy additions to the wins column. Now, until proven otherwise, they will look like nervous reminders of when the Wolves played down to their competition.
By the Numbers:
Anthony Edwards’ total of 11 assists matches his career and season high. With Mike Conley out and Towns’ huge shooting, Ant played a secondary role as a shot creator for others. This does not excuse his nine points. Edwards has scored under 10 points four times (barring injury) since the start of the season. Three of those have come since the new year began.
The Wolves gave up 27+ points to both Hornets starting forwards. Brandon Miller in particular was absolutely surgical, getting up his 27 points in only 13 shots. Fellow rookie Leaky Black made the free throws to ice the game.
Minnesota registered 34 assists for the 20th time this season, but fell to 19-1 when recording at least 27 assists.
Only three Wolves scored more than 10 points: Towns, Alexander-Walker, and Gobert. Gobert went a perfect 6/6 and finished with another double-double of 13 points and 11 rebounds.
For as bad as that no-call at the end was, the Wolves didn't deserve to win the game.— Canis Hoopus (@canishoopus) January 23, 2024
FG in 4Q:
• MIN - 6/22 (27.3%)
• CHA - 14/21 (66.7%)
3PT in 4Q:
• MIN - 1/9 (11.1%)
• CHA - 6/10 (60%)
Got beat off the dribble constantly in the final frame.
The Timberwolves will embark on a four-game road trip, which begins Tuesday in our Nation’s capital, where the Wolves will battle the 7-35 Washington Wizards, losers of their last four games. Fans can watch the 6 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North.