The Wolves are showing us what they want to be this year
The Minnesota Timberwolves held their first practice after the All-Star break on February 23. The Washington Wizards beat them 114-106 on February 16, sending the Wolves to the break with a 31-30 lead. Minnesota lost its first game in the second half 24 hours after that practice, with a score of 121-113 to the Charlotte Hornets. Washington finished 35-47 and 12th in the East. Charlotte finished 43-39, sneaking into the play-in game.
The Timberwolves ended the All-Star break with losses to two lower-tier teams, and were about to embark on a four-game road trip up the West Coast. Minnesota was 11-17 on the road before facing the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings. Furthermore, they will play 13 of their last 21 games away from the target position. Their season hangs in the balance.
Chris Finch was honest about the state of his team at the time.
Like most teams hovering around .500, wherever you slice it, you’re good in some places, not so good in others. Whether it’s at home, or on the road, against over .500 teams, under .500 teams. It’s really hard to be honest with you. But more often than not, you’re out on the road this time of year, and you can become more laser focused. We hope this is the case with us.
Last year’s team disappointed almost everyone after posting 46 wins in the 2021-22 season. It looked like the Timberwolves overpaid for Rudy Gobert and made the mistake of selecting Karl-Anthony Towns as their star when Anthony Edwards was their best player. They didn’t have Jaden McDaniels or Naz Reid under contract, but they did have Towns and Gobert on max deals. It was hard to tell who the wolves were. They lacked identity.
However, Tim Connelly pointed to their 3-1 West Coast road trip as a place where their size made a difference. “It was very difficult at first,” Connelly said of the Towns-Gobert duo in his end-of-season press conference.
It wasn’t even unique to them. We had a bad start to the season. … I thought before Nas got hurt, I thought this was the best we’d ever looked. It was a really successful West Coast road trip. I thought the big identity was starting to look like it could be an influential thing.
Reed broke his wrist in Phoenix on March 29. McDaniels broke his hand when he hit a wall in Minnesota’s final regular season game against the New Orleans Pelicans. Gobert swung at Kyle Anderson in the Pelicans game and was suspended by the team. Towns played only 29 games due to injury. The Denver Nuggets beat Minnesota 4-1 on their way to their first NBA championship. No one knew what last year was like or if it was any good. All anyone knows is that they weren’t as fun as the underdog team from 2021-22.
“Last year, I don’t think we found an identity at all,” Chris Finch said after their win over the Utah Jazz last weekend. “We never did that.
We’ve done a lot of good things. We’ve reinvented ourselves many times along the way. But coming into the season, we knew, with our lineup, that it had to be defense. It has to be defense, and it has to be big. If you’re going to play big with the big players, you have to do the things the big teams do. Big teams have to be physical, they have to play defensively.
With identity came results. The Timberwolves beat Denver and Boston Celtics to book a win over Utah, handing the Nuggets and Celtics their first loss of the season. Perhaps most importantly, they were not disappointed afterward. Minnesota beat the New Orleans Pelicans at home and the San Antonio Spurs at the start of a five-game road trip that will take them to the West Coast and New Orleans.
These are inspiring results after the Timberwolves fell in their opener to the Toronto Raptors and blew a 21-point second-half lead against the Atlanta Hawks, both on the road. Minnesota beat the Miami Heat, one of the NBA’s best teams, between those games by holding them to 90 points. It was an early indicator of what Wolves could be if they made defense their foundation.
“These are all the things we said we were going to do,” Gobert said after the Heat game. “That’s the identity we want to have. We want to be the best defensive team in the league. We had a great training camp. Practiced hard every day. Everyone was locked in from day one, and that’s what we want to be.”
Winning with defense is more sustainable in the NBA than trying to run the score every night, even with Minnesota’s offensive firepower. Edwards and Towns are talented offensive players. But Edwards is a good one-on-one defender, and Towns is committed to being a two-way player. McDaniels has always been sound on defense, and Gobert has been the pillar of their defensive system.
The Timberwolves have the pieces to be one of the best teams in the West. But they had some hiccups on the road early this season. The Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns will test them before they finish in the Big Easy. Last year, the Wolves felt their trip to the West Coast was the highlight of a disappointing season. Hopefully this season’s journey indicates just how good their newfound identity is.