The Wolves Have Encountered A New Pandemic Problem

Photo Credit: David Berding (USA TODAY Sports)

There were about five minutes left in the fourth quarter when Patrick Beverley started barking at the bench. The Minnesota Timberwolves had blown a 19-point lead they had built up in the middle of the third quarter. They led the Oklahoma City Thunder 85-83 but should have been up by over 20. Hell, they were up 30-10 after the first quarter and had blown that lead too.

“It’s our job,” he barked at the bench while standing on the floor. “Wake the fuck up!”

The Wolves responded, pulling away to win 98-90. Jaylen Nowell’s 16 points off the bench covered up an 0-for-8 night from Malik Beasley and D’Angelo Russell, scoring six points on 3-of-12 from the floor. Chris Finch rode his most productive players to the finish, and Anthony Edwards (22 points) and Karl-Anthony Towns (17) did enough to stave off an embarrassing loss.

The more significant point here isn’t that Minnesota almost lost to the Thunder. They’ve lost to the New Orleans Pelicans and Orlando Magic this year. It’s that the gang was back together. The Wolves held it together after the omicron variant of the coronavirus sidelined their starting unit. Nowell stepped up in their absence, so it was fitting that he finished off the game.

But it was Beverley who wouldn’t let this one slip away. It was more than the 20 points he scored on the nights or his tenacious defense. It was his unwillingness to settle. The Timberwolves have had nights where their players’ eyes glaze over. Where fans who are fed up with the losing throw up their hands and go Same old Wolves. Tonight wasn’t going to be that night.

“Patrick has been a great leader for us all season,” said Finch. “He sets the tone. He was letting his teammates know that what we did tonight probably wasn’t good enough. The guys are taking ownership over that and talking about it, that’s when you know you can move forward and actually get better off of that.”

It wasn’t just Beverley, though. Russell alternated between waving at adoring fans and shouting instructions at his teammates from the bench. Towns got animated in a huddle late in the game. Edwards seemed to know when he had the get the crowd involved and knocked down a critical three or a thunderous dunk to breathe life into the Target Center.

“That’s growth as far as like from last year,” Edwards said with a knowing smile on his face. “Because last year we’d get a lead, and a team would come back and beat us every time. Every single time. It was like, we gotta find a way to close games out.”

“I think it’s showing our mental toughness,” echoed Nowell. “We’re getting mentally tougher as these things start to happen. At the end of the day, we know that basketball is a game of runs. They made their run. Yeah, we could be mad that we were up 19, but at that moment, they’re only down one, so we’ve got to figure this out. We really pulled through.”

It was hard to identify whether Minnesota’s inability to take the 30-10 lead and blow over the Thunder with the force of a wedge tornado was more lack of focus or rust. After all, it was a midweek game against Oklahoma City, and Finch seemed to suggest his guys let up a bit. But it had also been 21 days since Finch had been able to pencil in his regular lineup.

Either way, this is Minnesota’s new pandemic problem. The omicron variant is spreading fast enough that the Minneapolis mayor is mandating masks again. Every team will face player absences because of COVID, and many have in some capacity already. But for a young team that is starting to put something together, the lack of continuity can be devastating.

The Wolves are 18-20 and 11-10 at home. They survived the omicron absences because of Nowell, Naz Reid, and Greg Monroe (!). But the big three is back, and with it comes expectations. Edwards says this is a playoff team, and that’s not just bravado. They should be. Minnesota has two max players and a former No. 1 overall pick. They’re deep and well-coached. And the fans are ready to see winning basketball. They’re worried that the team will leave if they don’t.

Do the Wolves have the infrastructure to survive players coming in and out of the lineup? Every good team needs to, even in a normal year. Injuries affect every team in the league. But I think they do. They have Russell shouting from the bench, trying to assist during an off night. Towns is still a force on the boards and can spread the floor — and Edwards knows how to keep the fans engaged.

“That’s beautiful, man,” Edwards said, beaming when asked about the fan response. “It’s like, I can’t even explain it. It’s beautiful.”

But most of all, they have Beverley. He’s refusing to let the Wolves fall into their losing ways again. He won’t let them nod off into oblivion.

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