Timberwolves

After Years of Defeat and Criticism, KAT Was Everything In Game 7

Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

A few hours before Game 7 between the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves was set to tip off, Karl-Anthony Towns was seen sitting alone in the fan seats at Ball Arena. He had his AirPods in his ears, staring into space and taking in the calm before the storm.

Towns was preparing himself for the biggest game in his professional career.

For the second time in franchise history, the Timberwolves found themselves in Game 7, 20 years to the day they prevailed over the Sacramento Kings in the second round in 2004. This year, confidence gave them a chance at advancing to the Western Conference Finals. However, defense and an overall sense of continuity made the gears turn throughout the season. It became a one-game, win-or-go-home series in the blink of an eye. With your season on the line, it can be easy to falter under pressure. But the Wolves knew how good they were.

Nerves were apparent through the first 5:41 minutes. The Wolves and Nuggets were a combined 6/24 from the floor and 2/8 from deep. Both teams were defending, but the offensive execution and missed shots were a clear indicator of how much was at stake. The Nuggets never played a Game 7 en route to their Finals win last year, and early on they showed why.

Minnesota’s offense wasn’t great through the first quarter. Its ball movement was slow, not punishing the Nuggets when they double-teamed Edwards or Towns. However, the Wolves’ coaching staff went with post-ups along the left baseline, putting Denver in a bind.

Anthony Edwards, Towns, and Naz Reid all got cracks at posting up, and Denver frequently sent two defenders to the ball. Even though Minnesota wasn’t passing well out of those double teams, that play generated some good looks that would eventually start to fall if the Wolves kept going to it.

At the end of the first quarter, Peyton Watson greeted Jamal Murray with a massive flex as he headed to the bench. After going 4/18 from the floor and recording 10 points in Game 6, Murray had already eclipsed that number through his first 12 minutes of action on Sunday – scoring 13 points on 5/10 from the floor and 3/5 from deep.

The Wolves have done a sensational job defending the Kitchener, Ont. native this series. However, Murray was virtually unguardable in Game 3 with 24 points on 11/21 from the floor. The same was true early in Game 7. Minnesota’s season would have come to a screeching halt if his dominance continued, especially when they weren’t responding on offense.

After Murray laced in back-to-back triples to close the opening frame, the Nuggets opened the first 2:20 minutes of the second on an extended 12-0 run. Minnesota’s offense was discombobulated. Edwards had two points on 1/5 from the floor, and far too many positions ended exactly as Michael Malone wanted – with a Rudy Gobert euro-step runner in the lane.

The Wolves continued struggling to put the ball in the hoop as the second quarter progressed. Jaden McDaniels‘ 10 points on 4/7 from the floor were positive. However, foul trouble forced him to take a seat on the bench with 4:54 left until halftime. He picked up his third whistle while trying to blitz a screen involving the red-hot Murray.

The Wolves desperately needed someone else to step up as Denver continued to build its lead north of 10 points. Towns delivered, rattling off a quick 5-0 run once Jaden took a seat on the bench, pulling Minnesota within ten points with 2:15 left in the first half. The Wolves had a chance to inch closer and build momentum after a hideous start to the game. However, they crumbled, going 0/5 from the floor and allowing the Nuggets to finish the frame on a 5-0 run.

Minnesota trailed by 15 points as both teams trotted back to their respective locker rooms. That’s not an unmanageable deficit, but it is when everyone without the last name Towns or McDaniels had a combined 15 points on 3/25 from the floor.

After going 1/7 from the floor in the first half, Edwards needed to start the third quarter strong and turn in the generational scorer we have all quickly become familiar with. However, through the first four minutes of the second half, he was 0/2 from the floor, including an open airball. He was playing with a pass-first mindset. While that is good against teams like the Portland Blazers in the middle of the regular season, it’s not ideal in Game 7 of the playoffs.

However, some of the passes Edwards was rifling off were the right decisions. Mainly, he penetrated the paint and kicked the ball out to McDaniels in the corner, which happened twice in the second frame, allowing the Wolves to settle into an offensive groove.

Those two corner triples from Jaden may have set the tone for Minnesota in the third. However, Towns was responsible for trimming Denver’s lead to only one in the third.

He played all 12 minutes of the third quarter, recording eight points on a mere 2/7 from the floor and 0/4 from deep, but he was 4/4 from the charity stripe. KAT singlehandedly willed the Wolves back into contention with his offense and defense.

Nikola Jokić played the entire third quarter, but the Wolves limited him to seven points on 2/6 from the floor and 3/4 from the free-throw line. Even though Jokiċ’s stat line was eerily similar to KAT’s, he didn’t have the same control on the frame as Towns.

Minnesota outscored the Nuggets by 14 points in the third. Suddenly, Denver lost all momentum and needed a fierce rebuttal to open the fourth.

However, Rudy Gobert and Naz Reid were responsible for the Wolves opening the final frame on a 4-0 run. During that time, Minnesota took its first lead since early in the fourth quarter, going up 70-67. All the players on the Wolves bench confined to the baseline were jumping up and down, mirroring the emotions conveyed by Wolves fans everywhere.

After the game felt all but over at halftime, Minnesota proved it was not content with letting its successful season end without any response. Towns willed the Wolves back into the picture after sitting by himself before the game. Still, he was on the bench for a good chunk of the fourth quarter. That could have allowed Denver to regain the momentum to potentially send the Wolves home.

However, Reid stepped up in the most significant way possible. With 3:05 left in the game, the Wolves held a 92-82 lead, which Ant capped off with a triple that allowed all the Wolves fans in the building to make Ball Arena sound like Target Center. But before that shot, Reid played a crucial part during that 30-point swing.

Through his first five minutes in the fourth, Big Jelly tacked on eight points on 3/5 from the floor to go along with two rebounds and two blocks. He was the chosen one every time the Wolves needed a timely bucket when Towns was saddling the bench in foul trouble.

Once KAT returned to the floor with 2:05 left in the game, Denver outscored the Wolves 9-6 the rest of the way. However, that late run by the Nuggets didn’t matter. It was far too little, too late. McDaniels started the game red hot, so it was only fitting that he finished off the Nuggets with a pair of free throws that put Minnesota up 98-90 with 9.1 seconds remaining.

They did it. They actually did it! The Timberwolves completed the largest second-half comeback in a Game 7 NBA history (15). Their backs were up against the wall for consecutive games, and they managed to pull out equally impressive wins in opposite ways after coming off a 45-point blowout win in Game 6 to keep their season alive.

“We were like, ‘Let’s go,’” Gobert told the media when asked what the locker room was like at halftime. “‘Let’s give everything we got.’ There were a lot of things we weren’t doing as well as we thought we could. We weren’t playing like the team we can play like. We came [out of halftime] aggressive, making the right play, getting stops and running. A 15-point [lead] in the NBA is nothing. We can always come back. Credit to all the guys in the locker room for keeping on believing.”

The Wolves took command of the game in the second half in pretty much every way possible. Below are splits from both the first and second half.

First half:

  • Minnesota: 12/38 (31.6%) FG, 4/16 (25%) 3P
  • Denver: 20/44 (45.5%) FG, 4/12 (33.3%) 3P

Second half:

  • Minnesota: 19/41 (46.3%) FG, 6/18 (33.3%) 3P
  • Denver: 14/39 (35.9%) FG, 4/21 (19%) 3P

Additionally, Murray had 24 points at halftime, but the Wolves held him to 11 points on 5/12 from the floor and 1/7 from deep in 21 second-half minutes.

“I had Jamal [Murray] in handcuffs,” Edwards said postgame.

While the Wolves’ defense was a primary reason they have a date with the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals, Minnesota’s season would be over without the Big Purr’s efforts on both sides of the ball.

“I didn’t know that the cameras caught it, but I definitely had a moment,” Towns told reporters postgame when asked about sitting in the seats before the game. “I’ve been here nine years. I’ve talked about wanting to win and do something special with this organization. For all the failures and all the things that didn’t materialize and the disappointment … even for this moment, we get to celebrate the wins. For me, being here nine years, I’ve seen everything and seen it all. But to be here this year with these guys and this team after all that, it’s super special.”

Karl finished with 23 points on 8/14 from the floor and 6/6 from the charity stripe, to go along with 12 rebounds. Thirteen of those points came in the first half, and eight of them came in the third quarter, two crucial spots in the game as he led the otherwise dormant Minnesota offensive in the first half and set the tone early in the third.

Pundits have long criticized Towns for his composure and consistency, but he stepped up in the biggest game of his professional career to lead his team over the hump that has been in their way for precisely 20 years. After many years of heartbreak on and off the court, 50+ losses, and no end in sight, the Timberwolves have reached a place not many expected them to achieve before the season or even playoffs started.

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