Mike Conley Needs To Lead In Late-Game Situations

Photo Credit: Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday night at Target Center, the Minnesota Timberwolves were facing off against the Washington Wizards – a team they haven’t beaten since November 2019. Despite Minnesota’s 3-7 record against Washington over the last five years, it seemed this matchup would be different as the Target Center crowd welcomed in their new starting point guard Mike Conley for the first time since the blockbuster move that sent D’Angelo Russell to the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Wolves jumped on the Wizards to open the game, owning as much as a 20-point lead in the first quarter. Anthony Edwards accounted for 18 of the team’s 36 points in the opening 12 minutes, pumping some early life into the crowd.

As the first half continued to roll on, the Wolves started playing sloppy basketball at times. Despite Edwards’ dominant scoring and Rudy Gobert’s impact on the glass, the Wolves were only able to take a 59-51 lead into the locker room at halftime. However, you got the feeling as players started filing back out onto the court that they were about to blow the game open, cruising to their second-straight win and moving to three games over .500. However, the Wizards started to chip away and the Wolves got complacent.

Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. started sending two or even three defenders at Edwards in the second half while running a zone defense in hopes of slowing down the Wolves’ dominance in the painted area. After scoring those first 18 points and looking like he was about to take this game by the horns, Edwards when on to drop nine points in the third, and only four points in the fourth. With no Karl-Anthony Towns, who has been out since November, Edwards is currently the only player on Minnesota’s roster who can dominate with the ball in their hands. Thus, highlighting the hole D’Angelo Russell left on the Wolves for the first time.

DLo has coined his signature “ice in his veins” celebration throughout his career. That was one of the main reasons Gersson Rosas traded for him in 2019, pairing an All-Star guard who can close games next to KAT. Over the next four seasons, Wolves fans became extremely familiar with Russell’s ability to take over in the late stages of games. However, the Wolves can no longer rely on DLo in crunch time and need to figure out how to close games with one less All-Star scorer on the floor.

“We can’t throw it off a guy’s knee or give up a layup, turn it over right back, and give up another layup,” Conley said after the game. “We can’t afford to do that. We’ve all gotta be thinking that as a whole group. For me to come in here, I just gotta be very, very attentive towards that. This is my first time being a part of the team and learning what plagues us and what doesn’t. It will be something for me to keep pushing forward as the season goes on.”

The Washington game was only Conley’s third game with the Wolves, so expecting him to be in full form right now would be unfair. However, given that it was Conley’s first home game, we all expected him to make more of an impact than he did. He finished with 0 points on 0-for-6 from the floor and six assists – especially after the extremely high impact (12 points, 9 assists on 4/8 from the floor) he brought against the Dallas Mavericks just one game prior.

Conley played somewhat tentatively and didn’t seem comfortable or confident with his shot against the Wizards. However, the Wolves didn’t need him to be a primary scorer. Rather, someone who can control the game’s pace all night long.

Despite some scuffling in certain moments of the game, the Timberwolves were still able to take an 11-point lead into the final frame – going on a nice little run to close the third. Until that point, Conley wasn’t all too much of a factor. However, the Wolves desperately needed him to lock in and finish what should have been a runaway win.

The defensive change that the Wizards threw at Chris Finch made it extremely hard for him to find a lineup combination that worked in the second half. Kyle Anderson, one of Minnesota’s saving graces this season, didn’t make the right reads when it mattered most – despite finishing with 18 points and eight dimes. Therefore, making the lack of late-game presence from Conley that much more crucial.

You never know what you’re going to get in the final game before the All-Star break. Everyone involved with the team is looking forward to the nine straight days off as they all hope to get their mind and body right before a potential postseason push. The Wolves will be sitting on this gut-wrenching loss much longer than anyone would like. However, with 21 games remaining, there is plenty of time to finish the rest of the season strong. Their sprint to the playoffs is going to rely on the chemistry of their newfound point guard, and how quickly he and his team can all get on the same page.

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