The Minnesota Timberwolves got a boost in Game 1 when Karl-Anthony Towns returned from a six-game absence with a dislocated wrist injury to play a team-high 37 minutes. He’d finish with 25 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks in the 125-122 overtime loss — not too bad for a guy who’s been on ice for six games. But it was in Game 2, where he watched on from the sidelines, where the Wolves — who were 0-for-6 and lost by an average of 20 points per game when he was out — snapped their six-game losing streak in a 96-88 win.
The Wolves’ ancillary pieces all seemed to make so much sense with Towns on the floor in Game 1. The offense had an established focal point, with Towns orchestrating inside and out. The guards and forwards all seemed to function with greater purpose. D’Angelo Russell and Ricky Rubio ran a mostly efficient Timberwolves offense.
But to me, the more impressive element to KAT’s return was the difference he makes on defense. He’s so much better this year on that end. There could be a variety of reasons for this, but he’s a year older and has a more mature focus on that end of the floor. The processing of the loss of family members, including his mother, would certainly factor into a renewed outlook — although we don’t know how much that translates to basketball. Whatever it is, it’s clear he’s put more emphasis on that part of his game.
He’s showing a newfound rhythm, which is leading to defensive discipline. Towns’ ability to block or at least change shots is crucial to the Wolves’ success. Simply put, he’s a max player for a reason. And it was fairly evident that when he was on the court, he was the best player. The Wolves would ultimately lose Game 1 in overtime, but they had the ball late with a chance to win — only to have Anthony Edwards turn it over at the buzzer.
The jury is out on whether Saunders should’ve called a time out to run something for Towns, that’s a discussion for some other time, but I wholeheartedly agree with having Ant on the floor at the end of the game — those lessons are invaluable for a young player. In the end, it was a reassuring sight to see KAT take the floor with his teammates.
I imagine it was also a relief for Saunders, who has come under scrutiny with this most recent losing streak.
Game 2 was very different than the first. Both games were competitive, but Game 2 featured something a little different from the Timberwolves… DEFENSE. Towns would not play in this one, as I’m sure he’s plenty sore from his banging down low against LaMarcus Aldridge for 37 minutes in Game 1 — it was a good move by Ryan to sit the superstar.
Aldridge would prove to be a load once again in this one, scoring 20 points and grabbing nine rebounds, but the Wolves benefitted from Gregg Popovich’s decision to sit DeMar DeRozan in Game 2. And while Patty Mills (18 points, four assists) and Lonnie Walker (25 points, four assists) stepped up in his absence, the Wolves managed to limit San Antonio’s offensive opportunities — except for a couple of occasions where they struggled to secure a rebound.
A lot of the credit should go to the return of defensive dynamo Josh Okogie. He and Jarred Vanderbilt are setting the defensive tone for this team. Both guys are critical to this team climbing back to respectability. I’d go as far as to say that Vanderbilt should be the starting power forward from now on. He offers KAT just what he needs; someone who protects the rim while guarding the best big on the other team.
Lastly, the Wolves got solid play out of their backcourt to complement their defense. Malik Beasley, who Jim Peterson is now calling #Threasely, and DLo were terrific, combining to score 51 points. Both guards were difference-makers tonight. It’s easier to see a bright future once KAT can play regularly. If the Wolves play defense like this once their centerpiece can play regularly, the playoffs are still a possibility.