The Wolves Are Trying To Exorcise the Demon That Still Haunts Them

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves sent Malik Beasley to the Utah Jazz as part of the Rudy Gobert trade in July 2022. But listen closely enough, and his words still echo through the Target Center concourses. “We honestly think it should be 4-1 right now,” he said before Game 6 of the first round of the playoffs three years ago. “But we made some mistakes, and we’re a young team. We have to learn from it and bounce back.”

Grizzlies fans and the Memphis media ridiculed Beasley for his statement, but there was some truth to what he said. The Timberwolves blew two 25-point leads in Game 3, relinquishing home-court advantage after they took Game 1 in Memphis. Twenty-four hours after Beasley said the Wolves should have won the series, the Grizzlies erased Minnesota’s ten-point lead entering the fourth quarter to eliminate them.

Those playoff losses squandered much of the goodwill the Timberwolves built up in their 46-win season. Last year’s 42-win season further suppressed the excitement of seeing Minnesota’s return to relevancy. Winning creates expectations, and the Wolves failed to meet them last year. But much of the early part of this season has squelched the negative narrative around the Gobert trade. The Frenchman has anchored the league’s No. 1 defense, and many fans were genuinely upset that he didn’t make the All-Star team.

But in some ways, the Timberwolves have yet to learn their lessons from the Grizzlies playoff series. The Wolves are a much different team; Tim Connelly turned the roster over with the Gobert trade. Still, they’re capable of blowing double-digit leads and fourth-quarter collapses. They lacked ball movement in this season’s opening game, a 97-94 loss to the Toronto Raptors, and they gave up a 19-point halftime lead to the Atlanta Hawks in their third game.

Minnesota has had signature wins since then. They beat the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets and took two from the Golden State Warriors on the road during a seven-game win streak after the Atlanta game. They also have beaten the Philadelphia 76ers and taken two games from the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, and Miami Heat. Minnesota has held the 1-seed in the West for most of the season. Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns are All-Stars, and Chris Finch will coach in the All-Star Game.

Still, it’s hard to overlook recent losses to the Charlotte Hornets, San Antonio Spurs, and Orlando Magic. Charlotte and San Antonio are two of the worst teams in the league; Orlando overcame a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit. The Hornets and Spurs losses were reminiscent of last year when the Timberwolves played down to their competition. The Magic game felt like a harbinger, especially after two recent late-game losses to Boston and Oklahoma City. If the Wolves don’t shore up their late-game offense, they’ll fall again in the postseason.

Regular-season success drove excitement in 2021-22. The Timberwolves had only one playoff season since 2003-04, and Tom Thibodeau didn’t build a strong foundation for the 2017-18 team. Jimmy Butler demanded a trade the following year, and the Wolves fired Thibodeau halfway through the season. But the Finch-Edwards Wolves felt built to last. Still, nobody will be happy with regular-season success if it ends in another playoff collapse.

On media day before the season, Tim Connelly said that the Timberwolves must win a playoff series this year. It’s impossible to project how Minnesota will do in the playoffs in February. But it’s equally difficult not to think about the Memphis series every time the offense stalls out. The Wolves had an opportunity to even things out with the Grizzlies last year. However, the Lakers erased a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit by holding Minnesota to seven points in the final 11 minutes and winning the game in overtime. Instead, they played the 1-seed Nuggets, who eliminated them in five games.

After Orlando outscored the Wolves 28-18 in the fourth quarter on Friday, Finch held a team-wide film session where they watched the entire fourth quarter and discussed what went wrong.

“We don’t often do that,” Finch said at practice on Saturday. “We [usually] watch theme-based edits, but we watched the whole flow of the fourth today. Just talked about our offensive issues and where they come from, [and] tried to draw connections to the previous games that we’ve had. But tried to take solace in the fact that we’re going through this now and hopefully we can get it right for the back end of the season.”

Minnesota’s chief issues were turning the ball over and allowing points in transition. “Even when we score, you see teams try to get it and go against us,” said Kyle Anderson. “It’s good to see it in February, though. We’re gonna see that in the playoffs. That’s how teams are gonna try to get around us. Go small and play fast and things like that, and dare us to get off the ball.”

More than going over film, though, the players said it was an opportunity to discuss their late-game offense openly.

“The biggest thing, honestly, regardless of what was said, it was who all spoke,” Mike Conley said after Minnesota’s 111-90 win over Houston on Sunday. “We had a bunch of guys stand up and talk – players, coaches. And just hearing different voices, hearing different conversations. Guys were talking about film, talking about what they needed to do to get better. Coaches were calling people out, telling them they needed to do this and that, and guys were receptive to it and just grown men about it. It was a really good session.”

“It was a great talk,” Gobert echoed. “More than just the film, we had a couple guys speak our mind and decide what we want to do as a team.”

It’s early February, and the Wolves have a five-game road trip before the All-Star break. We don’t know where they’ll stand in the Western Conference or what shape they’ll be entering the playoffs. In the immediate term, they must fix their late-game offense to remain atop the West. If Minnesota starts to close out games, we may look back at the Feb. 3 film session as a turning point in the season. The players’ voices will have drowned out the remnants of Beasley’s ill-fated playoff proclamation from three years ago.

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