My fiancée is a Minnesota Timberwolves sicko in training and has one tried and true joke that she loves to pull out when the Wolves are up by what should be a comfortable amount of points with very little time remaining in the game. “Are they going to win?” is a well-placed knife between the ribs for any Wolves fan who’s had to endure the first few years of the Chris Finch Era. Up 30 points with four minutes left in the third quarter? You better be clenching because the Timberwolves will score 12 more points and start playing like they’re in the All-Star Game. For years, the team had no finishing move to put their opponents away for good.
Noted conspiracy theorist @TwolvesBlog coined the term ‘Fincherian Blown Lead Syndrome on X (or Twitter around these parts). It reared its ugly head again early this season when the Timberwolves blew a 21-point third-quarter lead that turned into a 19-point loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Minnesota’s third game of the year. The 2023-24 season was shaping up to be the ‘same old Timberwolves.’ Again, they looked like a talented team that doesn’t play up to the sum of its parts and refuses to put their opponents out of their misery late in games.
Thankfully, they left the ‘same old Timberwolves’ in Atlanta. Since the second-half meltdown on October 30th, the Wolves are finding a way to impose their will on opponents and close games out much more comfortably. They’re 9-1 in November with the league’s best defense and 12th-best offense over the last three weeks. They had big, emotional wins over the Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics, and Golden State Warriors twice, plus the last-second comeback win against the Pelicans. After several of those games, the general vibe on Wolves Twitter was something similar to last year’s team would have lost this game.
In the game immediately after the Hawks mess, the Timberwolves raced out to a 22-point first-half lead against the Nuggets. Any self-respecting Wolves fan probably thought here we go again. They had to assume the third quarter would be the house of horrors it’s been since the Houston Rockets spanked Minnesota with a 50-point third quarter in the 2018 playoffs. But this year’s team showed something we haven’t seen since the Kevin Garnett Era. They showed grit and imposed their will on the reigning champs. The Wolves never allowed Denver to get within 13 points and closed the door every time the Nuggets tried to go on a run.
The Utah Jazz game went back and forth until the Timberwolves put the hammer down and won by 28 points. Anthony Edwards owned the Celtics in overtime. The Wolves kept a comfortable lead comfortable against the Pelicans. They kept their composure against the Brandin Podziemski-led Warriors and a Draymond Green chokehold designed to shake the team’s confidence. A schedule loss to the Phoenix Suns was the only blemish in a fantastic run that was capped off by a huge comeback win in New Orleans. Finally, a professional closeout against the New York Knicks to loft the Timberwolves to first place in the Western Conference.
Last year, Minnesota’s offense dried up when the games hit winning time, and the defense often let the team down. During the 2022-23 season, the Timberwolves had a negative net rating when ahead by six or more points. That crescendoed into a -24.8 net rating when ahead by 20 or more points and a -4.4 net rating in the third quarter. But Minnesota’s net rating is nearly plus-11 in the third quarter and the black when the team has a lead of any size this year.
It’s only been 13 games, but this seems to be a much more mature, professional Wolves team that knows how to win close games and hang onto leads late. We can attribute that air of maturity to Minnesota’s suffocating defense. The Timberwolves are back in the top spot with the NBA’s best defense, which gets even better as the game goes on. The Wolves give up 106.5 points per 100 possessions this season. The defensive rating drops to 102.3 in the second half and 100.6 in the fourth quarter.
Defensive Player of the Year candidates Rudy Gobert and Jaden McDaniels are setting the tone on the wing and in the trenches while Edwards is trying to take the mantle of best two-way player in the league from Giannis Antetokounmpo. Karl-Anthony Towns is finally settling down on both ends and playing real, impactful team defense. The supporting cast of Naz Reid, Kyle Anderson, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker all contribute in their own way.
Opponents will continue to test this team throughout the season, and the national media will slowly come around to using the C-word when talking about Minnesota’s title hopes this season. The Timberwolves can finally impose their will on other teams, which should scare the rest of the league. The Wolves may occasionally suffer a second-half collapse with the ever-growing volatility of the NBA. But the days of no Timberwolves second-half lead feeling safe are mercifully ending.