Be Like Mike

Photo Credit: Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves drastically reversed course when they traded D’Angelo Russell and brought in Mike Conley at the trade deadline. Russell, 27, is entering his prime; Conley, 35, has exited his. Russell considers himself a combo guard; Conley is a pass-first point guard. And while Russell was equally misunderstood and cool, Conley is forthcoming but also reserved.

At least they’re both left-handed?

Well, kinda. Conley shoots left-handed, but he might shoot more naturally with his right. He started playing in his backyard with his dad, former Olympian Mike Conley Sr., and launched the ball with his left hand. Conley was shooting on a 10-foot hoop, so he needed extra oomph to score. He generates more power from his left side; he was a left-handed hitter in baseball. But Conley has more finesse with his right. It’s the hand he uses for racket sports, to sign autographs, and occasionally hit floaters.

So Conley and Russell are mysterious in their own way, but Conley is more steady. While Russell and Anthony Edwards formed a dynamic scoring backcourt, Conley orchestrates a more fluid offense. He’s a better fit to unlock Edwards because he’s a lower-usage player and knows how to feed Rudy Gobert. But, most importantly, Conley is a player who’s never gotten a technical foul on a team that racks them up like parking tickets.

“It’s an emotional game, and we got a young team with emotions,” Conley said after Wednesday’s game against the Boston Celtics, where Edwards and Kyle Anderson received technical fouls and were ejected. “Everybody wants to win, they love the game, and they just can’t all be me. They can’t all have zero techs and be cool as a cucumber when it comes to all that.

“I should have just been here earlier,” Conley said in jest, “and we wouldn’t (lead the league). How about that?”

The officiating crew for the Boston game wasn’t great. In one sequence, they incorrectly executed a jump ball, then missed Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla joining his team as the sixth man. There was a lot of inconsistent calls both ways, and the Wolves don’t always get a bad whistle. But technical fouls are hurting this team, and they’re not taking advantage of situations where they are being fouled.

There have been a few notably odd situations this year. Mo Bamba left the bench to fight Austin Rivers in an early February game, and the yet officials ejected more Timberwolves players than members of the Orlando Magic. Anderson received a technical foul while he was shooting a free throw and did not receive an explanation after. Finch also didn’t understand why Naz Reid got a seemingly random tech against the Philadelphia 76ers earlier this month.

It feels fitting in a year that started out chaotically. A year after the the Timberwolves won 46 games and rejuvenated the fanbase, Tim Connelly traded five players and five picks for Gobert. The trade felt aggressive at the time and the national media has panned it since. Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Malik Beasley played important roles on last year’s team. Walker Kessler would probably be a top-5 pick in a redraft.

Things haven’t let up since then. Karl-Anthony Towns injured his calf on Nov. 28 and hasn’t returned. Edwards has asserted himself as Minnesota’s franchise player, but he’s playing on a roster built around Towns. The Timberwolves closed out 2022 on a six-game losing streak that dropped them to 16-21. Then they reeled off six wins in seven games and have been stubbornly .500 since. Their only loss during that streak? Fittingly, the Detroit Pistons.

The Wolves have beaten the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, and the Sacramento Kings. But they’ve also lost to the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, and Charlotte Hornets. They held serve by winning at home early in the season. However, they’ve lost five-straight at Target Center during a road-heavy post-All-Star Break stretch. One day they look like they’re securing a spot in the playoffs, the next they look like they’re going to miss them altogether.

Some of this is the nature of a large Western Conference middle class. Part of it can be attributed to various injuries they’ve suffered. It’s also the nature of an 82-game schedule in the increasingly-talented NBA. There are no off nights, which doesn’t allow any team to have one. But some of it is a product of the roster makeup. Russell was a microwave scorer who often sought his own shots and wasn’t a huge Gobert fan. Conley is a steadying force who played with the Stifle Tower in Utah.

Conley is no longer the player he was in his prime. But he has a valuable personality for a team that is looking for mooring in a storm. It’s hard to blame Edwards and Anderson for losing their cool in the Boston game. The officiating was terrible. However, it happens all too often in less trying circumstances. Still, the Wolves need to calm things down if they are going to find consistency late in the season and secure a playoff spot. They need to be like Mike. Conley that is.

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