MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES center Karl-Anthony Towns called it.
Three seconds before, down one with 18 seconds left against the Golden State Warriors, Kyle Anderson had intercepted a bad pass from Draymond Green. Anderson took two dribbles, spotted his big man sprinting down the floor to meet him, and dished it.
Towns stopped at the top of the 3-point arc and let the ball fly. Swish.
Sunday marked Towns’ second game back after missing the last four months with a right calf strain. And this was the Timberwolves’ first game of the season with their entire roster available — most importantly, with their trio of Towns, Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards.
The Wolves followed that win with another against the Sacramento Kings the next night, putting themselves in the six-seed in the West — the final secured playoff spot.
Now with only six games remaining in the regular season and their eyes on the playoffs, center Naz Reid said the team’s confidence is at an all-time high, and the Timberwolves believe they will finally, after a season’s worth of tumult, be able to mesh — just in time for the postseason.
But after five months of chemistry issues and whispers percolating across the league about a future mortgaged in a blockbuster trade; after Towns’ lengthy absence; after shipping out D’Angelo Russell for Mike Conley at the trade deadline, is six games enough to prove … anything?
“It’s going to be interesting,” said coach Chris Finch, whose Timberwolves (39-37) play at the Phoenix Suns (40-35) Wednesday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN). “We haven’t ever really had all the guys on the same floor at the same time, and that includes practice. We’ll just have to feel our way through it.”
They have 288 minutes of regular-season game time to do so.
TWO WORDS CAN explain why the Timberwolves’ season is still alive after their rocky start and extended stretch without their franchise player: Anthony. Edwards.
Edwards has been the focal point of Minnesota’s offense without Towns, posting a career-high usage rate of 28.9%, fueled by career highs in points, assists, rebounds and 3-point percentage.
He had some help. In addition to rising two-way wing Jaden McDaniels and Kyle Anderson running the offense, there was that six-week heater, close to the time of Towns’ reported recovery setback, from D’Angelo Russell in which he shot 47% from 3 on 8.5 3-point attempts per game.
But then the team traded him at the deadline for Mike Conley, a move that sources told ESPN was geared toward adding maturity to the roster, as well as someone who cared less about making flashy plays. There was also pre-existing on-court chemistry between Conley and Gobert.
COMING OUT OF the February All-Star break, Gobert met with Finch and made a promise — and an admission.
“He knew he hadn’t performed up to his standard or expectations,” Finch said. “Right now the team around him is really figuring out how to value him offensively, and that’s keeping him engaged, as well.
“We tell him after every game, keep doing your s—, Rudy,” Edwards said. “Rebounds, blocking shots, finishing, he’s been playing great. We want him to keep that up.”
Despite Towns averaging just one point per shot when he’s playing next to Gobert (1.28 when Gobert is off), Town’s shooting percentage being 15% better without Gobert and an impossibly small sample size, the Timberwolves are confident Gobert and Towns can not only co-exist on the floor together but thrive.
“[KAT and my potential] is limitless,” Gobert told ESPN. “I really thought that. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy and we’re still not where we want to be as a team, but it was exciting for me to be a part of something unique. A lot of people criticized it. But most things that are going to be different are going to be criticized early on.”
The 7-foot-1 center continued: “That’s why the team has been built this way — to be ourselves and be unique. I always say we look at us and the height and, yeah, we’re big, but we’re bigs who can move. We’ve got bigs who can shoot better than most guards.”
If Sunday’s game against the Warriors was even the tiniest of litmus tests to see if the Timberwolves’ big-man lineup could be successful against a much smaller, quicker team — another concern stemming from their early-season struggles, and perhaps upcoming ones in the postseason, they passed. For now.
And now with Edwards, Conley, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and the emergence of McDaniels, the Timberwolves feel they have the players to diversify their guard positions, as well. On both offense and defense.
“Some of the lineups we were playing with earlier this season, we weren’t able to get to the matchups we wanted because we had guys we couldn’t always put on the ball,” Finch said. “Now we have a multitude of guys we can put on the ball and when you can do that you can move guys around. Sometimes you have to hide players, but we don’t have that anymore.”
The Timberwolves understand that their four-game winning streak is far too small of a sample size to cancel out all of the criticism they’ve received this season. And perhaps their optimism is unwarranted. But it’s also feeding directly into the confidence they have now.
The Wolves currently sit in the seventh seed in the Western Conference. Their schedule is far from accommodating, with games against the Suns (Wednesday night), Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers, Brooklyn Nets, San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans. But there are promising signs, even small ones, of a team the Wolves imagined could eventually emerge.
“We’re doing a great job playing winning basketball,” Towns told ESPN. “Me and Ant, we just have to figure out how to implement ourselves back into the team and play at another level than we did before we were injured. … We’ve got to continue to trust in each other and continue to grow.
“Because getting to the playoffs is one thing. Winning in the playoffs is a whole other. Trust the process. Continue to believe in each other, love each other, believe in our goal and believe that it’s obtainable.”
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