The Minnesota Timberwolves did not end the season the way they wanted to, losing 112-109 to the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday. Although they lost the series in five games, the final game told us more about the roster cohesion than the previous playoff and play-in games. In Game 5, we saw a much more consistent flow from the offense and fewer self-inflicted stretches of nonsense than in previous games. Like any other series, there are positives, negatives, and uncertainty. Unfortunately, because of the chaos Minnesota’s injuries caused in this series, it’s hard to fully know what this team is capable of. However, Game 5 allowed us to get a more complete understanding of the team.
One thing we don’t have to worry about, though, is Anthony Edwards’ ability to perform in the playoffs. In the 5-game series, the 21-year-old shooting guard averaged 31.6 points, 5.2 assists, 5 rebounds, and 1.6 turnovers. Edwards added 3.8 stocks (steals + blocks) per game with 48.2/34.9/84.6 shooting splits. That places him in elite company for the current playoffs, not to mention how his performance stacks up against other players on their rookie-scale contract. Ant went 0-6 from beyond the arc in Game 5, but you would never know with how well he attacked the rim and found his mid-range shot. To do that takes a special ability that is difficult to find in a 21-year-old player. Regardless of how the series went for the Timberwolves, Ant gave his all and showed why he is a star in this league with more room to grow.
For the improvement moving into the next season, I would like to see him better use the ball screens his teammates set for him. That would require more emphasis on ball screens, which the Wolves as a team didn’t use as frequently as the rest of the league this year. More ball screens would open up more shots in the mid-range, which we saw come on as of late as well as test his quick decision-making with the ball as a playmaker.
Edwards’ defensive ability also stood out. His highlight-reel blocks that can be seen all over social media and have almost become a nightly occurrence. Everyone will scrutinize Edwards’ defense more now, given what we know he’s capable of. Therefore, he’ll have to be consistent as a defender on and off the ball. Fortunately, Jaden McDaniels will be there to take on the toughest matchups. Ant has a great opportunity has the ability to showcase his athleticism here. He has incredible lateral quickness and the athleticism to get deflections. His game on this side of the ball doesn’t need an elite, but he has a noticeable ceiling in this facet of the game.
One of the stand-out negatives is Minnesota’s lack of depth at guard. Mike Conley, 35, is going to give them stable enough play as a stopgap point guard. But the Wolves need more help there next season and looking into the near future. Conley turns 36 in October.
The Wolves were down Kyle Anderson, McDaniels, and Naz Reid in this contest, and Jordan McLaughlin still did not see time on the floor Tuesday. Finch used Jaylen Nowell, too. But in his 8 minutes, he had multiple defensive miscues and fouls that did not help Minnesota’s flow. Austin Rivers saw 14 minutes, but his play declined late in the season. He also dealt will an illness that held him out for nearly a month.
Still, regardless of Nowell and Rivers’ play, JMac’s lack of consistent minutes tells us he was not reliable, and that the Wolves must find an upgrade for this position this off-season. At a minimum, they should attempt to bring in a competent rookie on a two-way deal or with a second-round selection.
But the largest unknown that hovered over the Wolves this season is how is this lineup going to perform with the two bigs? Mike Conley, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Rudy Gobert only played 7 games together. That’s clearly not enough of a sample size to judge.
On Tuesday, we saw more effectiveness and activity from the bigs despite the hole created by the loss of McDaniels’ perimeter defense. KAT did a solid job defending Jokic. He got a lot of contests and forced many mid-range shot attempts. That’s something the Wolves can live with when you have a player in KAT that has had his defensive misfortune of going up against two-time MVP Nikola Jokic.
With Rudy, it was a mixed bag due to his varied matchups. It was tough to gauge his matchup with Aaron Gordon because of how often Rudy elected to help on drivers into the paint more than Gordon. Much of Gordon’s buckets were dump-offs. The Wolves completely sagged off him in the corners and above the break from three. That’s a well-executed game plan and showed how the Wolves can adjust to different teams’ personnel. Rudy would see the Jokic matchup when KAT was taken off the floor, and he could hold his own enough. But he is much better as the anchor of the defense rather than a 1v1 defender.
Finch’s scheme directly looks to evolve more game to game based on the opponent, which can be helpful and effective. However, it’s going to take a lot more buy-in from those around the bigs and consistency play to play. Especially if the Timberwolves play a team that is going to use ball screens more often and movement, because the Wolves will use KAT more at the level of the screen while Rudy stays back in drop coverage.