Timberwolves

The Wolves Are Trying To Be Like Water

Photo Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Growing up in Toronto, Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s uncle told him that he should learn to do everything with his left hand that he could do with his right. Alexander-Walker is right-hand dominant, but he can dribble effectively with both hands and throw left-handed passes with aplomb. He would practice shooting with his left hand and could hit a left-handed floater in the right situation.

Alexander-Walker grew up playing point guard next to his cousin, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and defended him in a play-in game last year. He’s filled in for Jaden McDaniels and Mike Conley. When he’s replacing McDaniels, Alexander-Walker has to be a wing-stopper who provides some offense. But he has to orchestrate the offense when he’s substituting for Conley. Passing and defense are Alexander-Walker’s foundation, but he can also be a supplementary scorer.

His versatility dovetails with the Minnesota Timberwolves’ team construction. Anthony Edwards is the superstar, and Rudy Gobert anchors the defense. Everyone else has a malleable role around them. Karl-Anthony Towns is a versatile big man who has adapted to Gobert’s game. Naz Reid slimmed down and provides an offensive spark off the bench. Conley tries to accentuate everyone’s strengths, and McDaniels can guard anybody.

“Be like water” is martial arts legend Bruce Lee’s famous quote. Lee believed that people should be “formless,” meaning they shouldn’t trap themselves in a certain mindset. Instead, they should adapt to certain situations, grow, and change. By doing so, they are taking on the qualities of water. Lee’s “be like water” mantra enabled him to become a world-famous martial artist and movie star.

Chris Finch runs a free-flowing offense. He believes that Minnesota’s offensive creativity is more difficult to guard when he isn’t constantly running set plays. To maintain their status as the league’s best defense, Finch and his staff create a detailed, bespoke defensive game plan for each opponent they face.

“With the way we’re built, every day we have to think about how we’re going to approach this with matchups and coverages and stuff like that,” he said after beating the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday. “A lot of teams kinda roll out the same defense every night. But we’re not built that way, so we gotta really kinda pick out certain points of emphasis that we’re focusing on.”

Finch’s defensive methodology has worked this year because his players have bought in.

“It’s just a credit to the coaching staff and a credit to us for being able to be versatile and be able to go on the fly and be professional about it,” said Alexander-Walker. “It just goes to every guy in this locker room for their ability to be switch hitters, basically, defensively.”

Towns has had to sacrifice the most. Minnesota’s longest-tenured player has had to accommodate Edwards as he ascends to becoming a franchise player while learning to play with Gobert. “Every year, I’ve been asked to do something different to sacrifice part of my game, myself, for the betterment of the team,” he said. “This year was just a year where I was asked more than ever to be as versatile as possible, especially on the defensive end.

“I feel like I’m executing what I need to execute and giving him those options by playing well enough on both sides to give him that chance to be creative with his coaching and game plans.”

Minnesota’s free-flowing offensive approach may be leading it to stall out late in games, meaning Finch may need to call more plays in crunch time. But he’s right in that an effective, creative offense is difficult to guard. Similarly, the Wolves have complicated defensive game plans, but the players understand and execute them.

“It’s not that bad,” said Reid. “Once you learn each coverage and once you know what the next person is doing, it kind of gets easy. With what that person is doing, you know what you have to do next, whether that’s getting to the next rotation, being a low man or helping, whatever the case may be, switching. You kind of get a feel going through it.”

“It’s a cheat sheet, honestly,” said Alexander Walker. “They’re going to give us the game plan and the drop on everybody. We just gotta make sure we play it to a key and lock in and pay attention to the things those guys like to do. …  It’s almost like we are seeing it play out slowly, and you’re able to be the aggressor as opposed to being on your heels the whole game.”

It’s fitting that a team based in the land of 10,000 lakes wants to be like water, and it’s allowed the Wolves to rise to the top of the Western Conference. Assuming that they don’t freeze late in games or against the league’s superstars, they should be able to ride this tide throughout the season. They allow one hand to know what the other is doing, and it’s enabled them to make waves a year after last year’s letdown season.

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