Jace Frederick: Timberwolves’ veterans have shifted the team’s identity
By handing the proverbial keys to the team’s veterans, the Wolves have righted a ship steering directly toward the Western Conference playoffs.
ST. PAUL -- So much of this Minnesota Timberwolves season has been a rollercoaster filled with mountainous highs and cratering lows. The Minnesota team you’d see one night — or even for a quarter — did not resemble the one that would show up the next.
The inconsistency was maddening for all involved but perhaps to be expected for a team relying so heavily on youngsters to supply the energy and direction. If Anthony Edwards was cooking by knocking down difficult shots or blowing by opponents in isolation, the Timberwolves were a supreme team. But relying on those efforts was a challenge. It’s not a sustainable path to success.
Which is what makes Minnesota’s current four-game winning streak against teams currently seeded in the top eight of their respective conferences feel so different. There has been no reliance on superhuman efforts or difficult shot-making. The success is from good ball movement that translates to balanced scoring, solid defense, rebounding and valuing each possession.
In the past, one home-run play was quickly negated by a bone-headed one, but the mistakes are dwindling. Minnesota committed just 11 turnovers in its win over Atlanta, and gave the ball away only six times on Monday in Sacramento.
Meanwhile, Golden State handed Sunday night’s game to the Timberwolves with a couple of careless turnovers in the final minute Sunday. That was a trademark of Timberwolves’ basketball over, really, the previous season and a half. But Minnesota has stopped beating itself.
The reason why seems clear: Minnesota is leaning into its veterans.
After Edwards went down with his ankle injury, the team quickly coalesced around Kyle Anderson, Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert. Those veterans steered the team down a path of playing good, smart basketball — one on which the team moves the ball and bodies with the frequency desired by head coach Chris Finch.
“Everybody’s communicating. Everyone’s lifted their level a bit getting more comfortable with the roster and the games being so big,” Finch told reporters. “I’m really hearing a lot from our veteran voices; Rudy, Kyle and Mike are kind of putting their stamp on this team.”
They are the new tone-setters, playing a brand of offense that unlocks young players such as Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid, who are given opportunities to create in space, often against opportune matchups. Minnesota’s ball movement is fluid and easy: low-risk passes that shift the defense without the risk of losing the ball.
That type of offensive approach lends itself to performances like Tuesday’s, when seven Timberwolves players scored 14-plus points on a night where Minnesota tallied 33 assists on 44 makes. It’s also an approach that’s difficult to guard with its lack of predictability. It’s nearly impossible for a defense to load up in a certain direction when all five offensive players are threats to score on any given possession.
That’s proving true even late in games, such as in Sacramento, where the Wolves scored on six straight possessions — all with assisted buckets — in the middle of the fourth frame to all but put the Kings away.
And even when the offense does occasionally stall — Minnesota only scored 99 points against the Warriors — defense and rebounding gives them a chance late. Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns both struggled mightily for large chunks of that game, and even McDaniels played just 10 minutes thanks to foul trouble. But it didn’t matter.
This team is not reliant on the contribution of any one player. Sharing the ball, defending and rebounding wins games. It’s a brand of basketball conducive anytime, anywhere, regardless of the opponent. Doing everything else at a certain level creates a margin of error that can survive fluctuations in shooting.
By handing the proverbial keys to the team’s veterans, the Wolves have righted a ship steering directly toward the Western Conference playoffs. Edwards and even Karl-Anthony Towns will surely play big roles for Minnesota over the remaining six contests, starting Wednesday in Phoenix, but they are now equal parts of a system where no one outshines the man next to him.
The identity of this team has quickly shifted into one embodied by veterans who won a lot of games before joining the Timberwolves.
The Wolves are smart, solid and willing to do the little things required to compete at a high level on a nightly basis. Should everyone continue to buy into that formula, there’s no telling where it could take them.
“I believe in this team, big time. … But I’m not going to go out and tell other people what I believe in,” Anderson said after Sunday’s win over Golden State. “We’re just going to work at it every day, make sure we put the work in, make sure we stay together and try to make something happen.”
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