How Can the Wolves Recapture Last Year's Late-Season Magic?

Photo Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

One year ago today, the Minnesota Timberwolves owned a 31-28 record and were seventh in the Western Conference. This year, the Wolves are 31-30, the eighth seed in the West coming out of the All-Star break. While the records may be similar, the differences between the two teams are glaring.

The feel-good team of last season, led by Sachin Gupta, decided to stand pat at the trade deadline. The Wolves had gaping holes in their roster, most centered around the lack of paint defense and rebounding. Despite the flaws, Gupta and the front office appeared to value the chemistry that the team was building more than any potential trade. In hindsight, the choice to keep the pack together was wise. They made the playoffs for the second time in 18 years.

Fast forward to this season, and chemistry – or lack thereof – has been Minnesota’s Achilles heel after overhauling their roster this past off-season. To make matters worse, Tim Connelly dealt Minnesota’s floor general for the last four years before the deadline.

However, all of that is in the past, and stewing on it won’t help. With 21 games left this season, the Wolves need to go a run as the postseason inches closer. Minnesota went 15-8 following the All-Star break last year. How can this year’s Timberwolves squad recapture that magic and close the 2023 regular season strong?

Get KAT Back With Ant

In July, if you told me that the Wolves would be without Karl-Anthony Towns for 40-plus games and still be over .500 at the All-Star break, I wouldn’t have believed you. However, that’s exactly what the Wolves have done – mainly due to Anthony Edwards’ efforts.

Since Towns has gone down, Edwards is averaging 26 points, six rebounds, and five assists on 46.7% from the floor and 37.4% from deep. Ant has single-handedly kept the Wolves afloat this season, stepping into a leadership role at just 21. As a result, he received his first All-Star nod.

Despite Edwards’ flat-out dominant play, the Wolves need KAT’s offensive firepower, especially without DLo – who was averaging just under 20 points this season before being traded.

With the extended time he’s missed this season, it’s very easy to forget how good Towns is offensively. KAT has been the staple of Wolves basketball since they drafted him in 2015. I emphasize “the” because Towns has had little to no help aside from Russell’s inconsistent offensive ability.

Edwards’ third-year leap is exactly what most fans were hoping to see. However, his improved play on both sides of the ball has come without Towns in the lineup. Most may hear that statement and conclude that the Wolves no longer need KAT. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Upon returning, Towns may be Ant’s sidekick, not only for now but in the future. However, you can only ask so much from the still-inexperienced Edwards. With only one primary scorer (excluding DLo), the Wolves have issues against sub-.500 teams this season. The competition becomes much more difficult when looking ahead at the next 21 games. However, that may be just what the Wolves need.

Take Care of Business

Playing down to their competition is a phrase we’ve heard all too much these past few seasons. Earlier in the year, I thought the Wolves were finally starting to win the games they are supposed to. However, as the season has gone on, that theory did not age well.

Minnesota is 16-14 against teams that are below .500 this season. That includes losses to the Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets, and San Antonio Spurs.

When looking at the remaining 21 games, the Timberwolves only have nine matchups against sub-.500 teams and 13 games away from Target Center. For any other team trying to make a playoff push, matching up against teams with good records on the road is a concern. However, this demanding schedule may be a panacea for a Wolves squad that seemingly performs better against top teams.

Consistent Play From the Bench

Heading into this season, the Wolves looked like one of the deepest teams in the NBA – following some underrated signings like Kyle Anderson and Austin Rivers. But we’re over halfway through the season, and that hasn’t been the case.

It’s not that the Wolves haven’t received some great play from their bench. Rather, it’s the injuries they’ve had to endure.

Anderson has missed 13 games and has entered starting five for almost every game that Towns has missed. Not having Anderson’s slow, smart pace with the bench mob has not been good – especially when McLaughlin was out.

Most of the blame for Minnesota’s poor bench performance has fallen at Nowell’s feet, who’s had a very tough season – averaging 11 points on 44.7% from the floor and 29.6% from deep. However, we started to see Nowell’s play pick back up when McLaughlin returned.

“It’s always love,” said Nowell after his 16-point effort a few weeks ago in McLaughlin’s first game back after missing 30 straight. “J-Mac always gets the game going, always makes the game fun, and gets everybody involved. Great to have him back.”

In the last six games with McLaughlin back, Nowell is averaging 14 points on 52.5% from the floor and 46.2% from deep – looking like his old, bucket-getting self. The bench play will largely hinge on those two executing their individual roles every night. If they can keep up their high level of continuity for the rest of the season, good things will surely come.

The widespread issues across the board have been well-documented this season. But with less than two months of the regular season left to play, we can’t fret about the past. If the Wolves can clean their play up and achieve what I listed above, they should have no problem making the playoffs without stopping in the play-in tournament and recapturing some of last season’s magic.

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