Timberwolves

The Timberwolves Go As D'Angelo Russell Goes

Photo Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

D’Angelo Russell is enjoying arguably the best season of his career with the Minnesota Timberwolves this year. The seventh-year point guard has helped lead the Wolves to a 43-34 record and a likely spot as the seventh seed in the Western Conference play-in tournament. After mixed results in his first year-and-a-half in Minneapolis following the Andrew Wiggins trade, DLo is averaging 18 points and a career-high seven assists. He’s also playing the most consistently good defense of his career.

But it’s not all roses and rainbows in Target Center. The Wolves have dropped four of their last five games to fall 2.5 games behind the Utah Jazz for an automatic playoff spot. Knowing how important Russell is to Minnesota’s big three, it’s no surprise that he’s been struggling mightily during the skid. The former All-Star is averaging 11.2 points and 5.6 points across his last five games and somehow shooting just 30.6 percent from the field while making 4-of-27 threes in that span. There are five games left in the season, and Paul George back on the court for the Los Angeles Clippers. The Wolves and their floor general need to figure things out fast if they don’t want to go the way of last year’s Golden State Warriors team that had two cracks at the play-in and came up empty.

To Russell’s credit, his worst stretch of the season has come against a late-season gauntlet of some of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Of their last five opponents, the Boston Celtics have the stingiest defense in the league, followed closely by the Phoenix Suns. The Dallas Mavericks come in at seventh, and the Toronto Raptors round out the top 10. With Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges, Marcus Smart, Fred VanVleet, and a bevy of top-notch defensive guards, it’s no wonder DLo can’t get a clean look at the basket.

It’s a baptism by fire into what playoff basketball will look like, especially when Chris Finch is missing two key contributors in Jaden McDaniels and Malik Beasley. The lack of depth puts a lot of added pressure on Russell’s shoulders. But Minnesota’s third star will have to be able to shoulder the burden if they want to make some noise in a first-round matchup against any of the top four seeds in the West. All are in the top seven in defensive rating this season.

Russell can finally come up for air after the beating he just took. Minnesota’s last five regular-season games don’t feature a top-10 defense. It should be much easier for Russell to find space against the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Washington Wizards, San Antonio Spurs, and Chicago Bulls. They rank 15th, 29th, 25th, 19th, and 20th, respectively, in defensive rating. It will be a good ramp-up period to get Russell back on track and ensure the big three is strong going into the postseason.

DLo isn’t the only Wolves star struggling down the stretch. After scoring a franchise record 60 points against the Spurs two weeks ago, Karl-Anthony Towns has come back down to Earth. Averaging 18.4 points and 8.4 rebounds across his last five games, Towns is getting up an average of just 13.6 shots a game and taking only three shots from behind the arch per game. The third piece of Minnesota’s triumvirate, Anthony Edwards, looks to be getting back to his normal self after struggling with tendinopathy in his knees for the last few months. The Timberwolves will need every bit of his energy to compete in the West.

But Russell runs the show in Minnesota, and the Wolves will not be playing into May or June if their floor general is reduced to a floor lieutenant. The good news is that Russell doesn’t seem to have the point guard yips where someone just forgets how to play and starts throwing the ball all over the place like Fred Brown in the 1982 NCAA Championship game. Thankfully, DLo has taken care of the ball during his struggles. He’s averaging just 1.4 turnovers in his last five games, down from his season average of 2.5, which is at least a somewhat promising sign that it’s mostly just a shooting slump.

However, it’s not his first shooting slump of the season. It’s easy to forget that Russell didn’t exactly come out of the gates firing on all cylinders this season. It took him 18 games to get his field goal percentage above 40 percent on the season. He continued to go hot and cold until he stabilized for good in January.

With a career field goal percentage a tick under 42 percent, DLo will never give you the consistency that a true superstar guard would, but he’s capable of getting hot at the right times to lead his team to big wins. He’s Minnesota’s go-to clutch shooter making 27 of his team-leading 61 attempts (44.3 percent) in clutch situations this season. DLo has ice in his veins and should be able to rise to the occasion once the stakes get higher.

D’Angelo Russell has finally found the perfect basketball home in front of a Minnesota fanbase that he stoked into one of the rowdiest in the NBA. But the job is not finished. The 26-year-old has another chapter to write in his still burgeoning basketball career that’s taken him from coast to coast and now to the frozen tundra. For him to take the Wolves to playoff glory with him, DLo will need to shake out of his recent shooting slump. He’ll need to retake the reins of the best Timberwolves team since KG if they want to have any chance of advancing. Towns and Edwards are Minnesota’s two best players, but DLo is the captain of the ship, and their playoff hopes are in his capable hands.

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