Timberwolves

The Wolves Are Building Championship Quailities

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

On July 1, 2022, I visited a furniture store while on vacation up north. When the clock struck 2:40 PM, I felt my phone vibrate from within my pocket. Because the free agency signing window opened one day before, I immediately whipped out my phone, thinking the Minnesota Timberwolves may have signed another player. However, I was dumbfounded when the tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski read…

A whirlwind of emotions began swirling in my mind. Light-headed, I sat on one of the random coaches inside the store, waiting to see what the Wolves were giving up in return. Once I collected my thoughts and emotions, I immediately thought about how the Wolves, a team once content and hopeful for a playoff berth, turned into a championship contender because of one trade new President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly had executed.

“It’s go time,” said Karl-Anthony Towns on July 22, 2022. “The [Gobert] trade happens. There’s no more time. There are no more excuses. We’ve got to get it done now. It’s championship now or bust. We’ve got to go out there and get the job done.”

The team’s mindset became evident after the Wolves brought in a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. After years of being in the doldrums of the NBA standings, the time had finally come, and a window opened. Minnesota was home to budding star Anthony Edwards, the greatest three-point shooting center of all-time in Towns, and a generational defender in Gobert. Offensive-minded head coach Chris Finch was there to tie everything together.

It would have been foolish to expect the Wolves to meet or even get close to those lofty goals last season. Towns missed training camp due to illness and 52 regular-season games with a calf strain. Gobert was never fully healthy because of a knee injury he suffered while playing for France over the summer. Additionally, the Wolves moved their starting point guard, D’Angelo Russell, for Mike Conley at the trade deadline. The 2022-23 campaign was anything but textbook and far from what Minnesota’s coaching staff, front office, and ownership group were hoping for.

However, the Wolves are living up to expectations this year. Their starting lineup has remained healthy, and they have been playing at an unprecedented level. They have risen to the top of the Western Conference standings for most of the season. Minnesota is building qualities and learning lessons that will give the team a legitimate shot at the goal they set in the summer of 2022.

“We all have the same mindset on all have one goal. We don’t have any outside agendas,” Naz Reid responded when SportsCenter’s Matt Barrie asked what will make this year’s playoff run different from last year’s. “Everybody has put their pride aside, and I think everybody has the same mindset — win, just win, win, win. I think that’s the only thing on each one of our minds. We are all going to put the effort in. We are all going to work. We just have to continue to show it each and every night.”

The Wolves lasted only five games in the playoffs last season. They were the 8-seed going up against the 1-seeded Denver Nuggets without Reid and Jaden McDaniels, two integral components to their success. Denver was favored -550, but the Wolves still gave the eventual champion Nuggets their most difficult challenge in the postseason. Sure, last year went into the history books as Minnesota’s 10th first-round exit in 11 total playoff appearances. Still, the young core learned valuable lessons that have carried over into this season as the team gears up to potentially host its third first-round playoff series in franchise history.

Last week on First Take, Stephen A. Smith asked Towns how the Wolves will find postseason success and finish the last part of the season strong. Towns emphasized the team’s incredible defensive work and how that can carry them deep into April, May, and possibly even June. “It’s a standard and a consistency that needs to be built and honed every single day,” Towns explained.

With our defense leading the league in holding opponents below 100 points, I think that we can just find ways to find that standard, that consistency every single night now while we finish out the regular season; we can step into the playoffs as a team that’s ready to hold opponents under 100 points and score over 100 points. It’s a recipe for success. It’s a standard and a consistency that needs to be built and honed every single day, right now, while the regular season is going on so that when we get to the playoffs, we are that championship-caliber team that we need to be.

The Timberwolves have made defense their identity this season. They own the NBA’s best defensive rating (107.9) by 2.5 points for most of the year. They also allow the second-fewest paint points per game (45.6), a testament to Gobert and Towns’ defensive capabilities.

Minnesota loves to set up in the halfcourt and lock down on defense. You may hear some players refer to this as “sitting down.” The Wolves rank first in opponent points per play in the halfcourt (91.6) and first in points per possession (108.3). With their overwhelming size in the frontcourt and scrappy perimeter defenders, Minnesota’s opponents have an incredibly challenging time stringing together productive offensive sets once the game slows down. At these points and situations, the Wolves’ league-best defense shines through, and they become an almost unbeatable team.

They have leaned on their size on defense, which can carry them in the playoffs. However, the Wolves must also assert their size on offense more frequently against battle-tested teams. That will further help reduce some of their offensive woes.

“For us, our size is going to be our biggest advantage,” further explained Towns on First Take. “The fact that we have been able to find success playing a two-big lineup and also, at times, we’ve shown a three-big lineup with Naz Reid, who is an integral part of our team. To be able to have that size, and if we are shooting the ball the way that we have shown during the season when we’re hot, it’s hard not to make us score over 110 points.”

When the Wolves traded for Gobert (7’1”), many pundits believed the fit between him and Towns (6’10”) would not work in a league that continues to go smaller. However, the Wolves have been partly responsible for the NBA shifting back to a taller league. There aren’t many teams capable of successfully matching up against Rudy and Karl. One of them usually creates a mismatch from within the paint during most games.

If the Wolves make it to the Finals, they will likely have to go through the Los Angeles Clippers, who sit fourth in the Western Conference. LA has built a roster full of veteran playoff performers like Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and James Harden, and they appear to be one of the most difficult outs currently in the thick of the standings. Still, Minnesota unlocked a potential recipe for success against Los Angeles earlier this month.

In their 121-100 win over the Clippers on February 12, the Wolves put up 64 points in the paint while LA scored only 42. The Clippers’ lone 7-footer, Ivica Zubac, guarded Gobert for most of the game. That left Leonard and Terrence Mann to tag team covering Towns. Instead of continuously hoisting shots from deep, Karl realized LA’s lack of size and turned in one of his most productive and efficient games of the season, recording 24 points on 8-of-12 from the floor and 8-of-8 from the paint.

The Wolves maximized their size that night, and great things happened. Defensive matchups are more fluid in the playoffs, and the energy is at another level. But it seems evident that when Minnesota gets inside with their size, it almost eradicates their offensive issues. Opposing teams are forced to slip into the paint and play help defense, opening up three-point looks away from the play.

To round everything out, the Wolves have a player who Vanity Fair recently dubbed the next face of the NBA. Edwards, 22, leads the Timberwolves with charisma and on-court energy. Just like the rest of his team, Edwards still has lessons to learn and much room to grow before the team enters the postseason. However, he genuinely believes the Wolves have a shot at the Finals. Ultimately, his confidence and ability to envision a championship in Minnesota is arguably just as necessary as star power or team skill level.

“I’m super confident,” Edwards responded when ESPN’s Malika Andrews asked him how confident he was the Wolves could make this year’s Finals. “If everybody stays healthy, I think we are going to be a problem in the playoffs for sure.”

The Wolves still have 25 games left in the regular season and are far from a finished product. However, they are building championship qualities, giving the team a path to postseason success. Now, it’s about fine-tuning those aspects and making a final push to hold onto the No. 1 spot in the West and cruise into April with momentum.

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