The Minnesota Timberwolves held their first practice after the All-Star break on Feb. 23. The Washington Wizards had beaten them 114-106 on Feb. 16, sending the Wolves into the break with a 31-30 record. Minnesota lost their first game out of the break 24 hours after that practice, 121-113, to the Charlotte Hornets. Washington finished 35-47, 12th in the East; Charlotte ended up 43-39, sneaking into the play-in game.
The Timberwolves bookended the All-Star break with losses to two inferior teams, and they were about to head on a four-game West Coast road trip. Minnesota was 11-17 on the road before facing the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, and Sacramento Kings. Furthermore, they’d play 13 of their final 21 games away from Target Center. Their season hung in the balance.
Chris Finch was honest about the state of his team at that time.
Like most teams that hover around .500, wherever you slice it, you’re good some places, and you’re not good in other places. Whether it be home, whether it be road, against over .500 teams, under .500 teams. It’s hard to make heads or tails of it, really, to be honest with you. But oftentimes, you do get on the road at this time of the year, and you can become more laser-focused. Hopefully, that’s going to be the case with us.
Last year’s team disappointed almost everyone after their breakthrough 46-win season in 2021-22. It looked like the Timberwolves overpaid for Rudy Gobert and miscast Karl-Anthony Towns as their star when Anthony Edwards was their best player. They didn’t have Jaden McDaniels or Naz Reid under contract, but they had Towns and Gobert locked into max deals. It was hard to figure out what the Wolves were. They lacked an identity.
However, Tim Connelly pointed to their 3-1 West Coast road trip as a spot where their size made a difference. “It was super clunky initially,” Connelly said of the Towns-Gobert pairing at his end-of-season press conference.
It wasn’t even unique to them. We had a clunky start to the season, period. … I thought prior to Naz’s injury, I thought that’s probably the best we looked. We had a really successful West Coast road trip. I thought the big identity was starting to look like it could potentially be something that was impactful.
Reid broke his wrist in Phoenix on March 29. McDaniels broke his hand when he punched a wall in Minnesota’s final regular-season game against the New Orleans Pelicans. Gobert took a swing at Kyle Anderson in the Pelicans game and served a team-issued suspension. Towns only played 29 games due to injury. The Denver Nuggets dispatched Minnesota, 4-1, on their way to their first NBA championship. Nobody knew what last year’s was or if they were any good. All that anyone knew was that they weren’t as fun as the scrappy, underdog team from 2021-22.
“Last year, I don’t think we ever found an identity,” Chris Finch said after beating the Utah Jazz last weekend. “We just never did.
We did a lot of good things. We kind of reinvented ourselves many times along the way. But coming into the season, we just knew, with our lineup, that it had to be defense. It had to be defense, and it had to be big. If you’re going to play big with big guys, you’ve got to do the things that big teams do. Big teams should be physical, and they should play defense.
With identity has come results. The Timberwolves beat Denver and the Boston Celtics to bookend the win over Utah, handing the Nuggets and Celtics their first losses of the season. Perhaps more importantly, they didn’t have a letdown after that. Minnesota beat the shorthanded New Orleans Pelicans at home and the San Antonio Spurs to kick off their five-game road trip that will take them to the West Coast and New Orleans.
Those are inspiring results after the Timberwolves fell flat in their opener against the Toronto Raptors and blew a 21-point second-half lead to the Atlanta Hawks, both on the road. Minnesota picked up against the Miami Heat, one of the NBA’s best-run teams, in between those games by holding them to 90 points. It was an early indication of what the Wolves could be if they made defense their foundation.
“That’s all the things we said that we were going to do,” Gobert said after the Heat game. “That’s the identity that we want to have. We want to be the best defensive team in the league. We had a great training camp. Practice really hard every day. Everybody was locked in from Day 1, and that’s who we want to be. “
Winning with defense is more sustainable in the NBA than trying to run up the score every night, even with Minnesota’s offensive firepower. Edwards and Towns are gifted offensive players. But Edwards is a good individual defender, and Towns is committed to being a two-way player. McDaniels has always been sound defensively, and Gobert is the pillar of their defensive system.
The Timberwolves have the pieces to be one of the best teams in the West. But they’ve had some hiccups on the road early this season. The Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns will test them before they finish up in the Big Easy. Last year, the Wolves felt that their West Coast trip was a highlight of a disappointing season. Hopefully, this season’s trip indicates how good they can be with their newfound identity.