How the Timberwolves went from lottery team to Western Conference playoff contender

After beating the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks in early March, Karl-Anthony Cities spoke emphatically in regards to the confidence that the Minnesota Timberwolves are taking part in with these days. 

“Any time we step on the court docket, we should always win,” said Towns, who completed that sport with 25 factors and 11 rebounds. “Easy as that. There isn’t any excuse. We do not really feel that we should always lose to anyone. We really feel we are able to beat anyone. So, each time we stroll into the world, we really feel we should always win.”

Profitable seems to be coming simpler to the Timberwolves this season, particularly just lately. Their 12-6 file because the All-Star break ranks sixth within the league, and their plus-7.5 internet score is fourth finest throughout that span.  

They’ve rattled off wins towards the Grizzlies, Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and Miami Warmth, and have climbed the rankings (presently seventh) within the West to the purpose the place there’s nonetheless a risk of them avoiding the play-in event altogether. 

The Timberwolves being on this place did not look like a risk again in October, particularly after ending the 2020-21 season with a 23-49 file. However with their most up-to-date win — a 116-95 drubbing of the Mavericks — they’ve formally doubled their win complete from a 12 months in the past, and no matter what their file is on the finish of the season, they will end above .500 for simply the third time within the final 17 years. 

But if you happen to’ve watched the Wolves play just lately, it is not solely shocking to see how this crew has crashed the social gathering of playoff hopefuls within the West.

It begins with the play of Cities, who earned his third All-Star choice this season after a 12 months the place he missed 22 video games attributable to a dislocated wrist. After two injury-riddled seasons, the previous No. 1 total decide returned to being the environment friendly, dominant participant we have grown accustomed to seeing early in his profession.


However the distinction between Cities this season and years prior is the forms of photographs he is taking. 

For a majority of Cities’ profession, the Wolves’ philosophy has primarily been get KAT the ball on the block and let him go to work. However this season we’re seeing a distinct Cities on offense. Almost 20 % of the photographs Cities is getting are from spot-up conditions, essentially the most of some other play sort this season. The thought continues to be get KAT the ball and let him go to work, however as an alternative of feeding him within the publish, he is out on the perimeter the place he may be extra versatile as a scorer. 

Now we’re seeing Cities take guys off the dribble extra, and since larger defenders cannot stick with him when he drives to the ring, he is doing stuff like this:

You place a smaller defender on Cities and his dimension and power will possible knock them off steadiness:

And you’ll’t sag off him on the perimeter, as a result of he is been a deadly 3-point shooter his whole profession. There is a cause he is the reigning 3-point contest champion, and this season he is knocking them down at a 40 % clip:

Cities is the principle cause why the Wolves have been so profitable this season, however he isn’t the one one. D’Angelo Russell is averaging a career-high seven assists a sport to go together with 18 factors an evening within the healthiest season he is had since he was chosen an All-Star taking part in for the Brooklyn Nets in 2019. Then there’s Anthony Edwards, who has taken one other leap in his improvement to turn into a dependable second scoring choice alongside Cities. 

Edwards’ effectivity has been the most important enchancment, going from a 32.9 % 3-point shooter in his rookie 12 months, to now flattening 36 % of his 3s on over eight makes an attempt an evening. That alone is a big enchancment for the 20-year-old guard, however he is seen optimistic improvement in different areas of his sport, too.


Edwards has turn into a greater facilitator, and he is making sensible reads when he is driving to the rim. And since he is such a scoring risk with the ball in his fingers, the protection naturally gravitates towards him, which then simplifies the passes he must make to a teammate who could also be open on the perimeter. Like this:

Edwards has turn into a constant 20-point scorer this season, he is taken a leap as a passer and he is turn into extra dedicated to being a two-way participant. He is turn into so assured in his protection that he is even asking to protect the opposing crew’s finest participant on events, relishing within the problem to be locked in on that finish of the ground. Edwards has requested to protect gamers like LaMelo Ball, CJ McCollum and DeMar DeRozan, although Minnesota head coach Chris Finch opted to throw Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels at DeRozan of their lone matchup up to now towards the Bulls this season. 

After the Timberwolves beat the Memphis Grizzlies in late February, through which Edwards was the second-most used defender towards Ja Morant, he informed the media that going ahead he desires to protect Morant full time. 

“If we play Memphis anymore this 12 months, I am gonna inform him let me guard Ja,” Edwards told reporters after serving to maintain Morant to 7 of 25 from the sphere. “Ja’s my brother, however I really like the matchup. I like to go towards him.” 

You might see the depth Edwards was taking part in with when he guarded Morant. On one possession he single-handily stopped Morant on a fastbreak, one thing that is not simple to do and infrequently ends in a highlight-level dunk from the explosive younger guard.  

On one other possession Edwards acts like Morant’s shadow, mirroring each step to restrict the quantity of mandatory area wanted to create off the dribble and even get a top quality shot off: 

The cherry on high of what was an excellent defensive effort for Edwards that night time got here within the closing seconds of the sport, when Morant had two separate alternatives to tie the sport up and probably ship it to time beyond regulation. On the primary try, Edwards poked the ball away from Morant that resulted in an empty possession for Memphis. On the second, he stayed glued to Morant and impacted his shot sufficient to pressure an airball within the closing seconds. 

It is the kind of defensive depth Edwards spoke into existence again in October after a win over the Bucks through which Minnesota’s protection thrived.

“Man, we lock up, man. I do not care what no one say about us. We play the very best protection within the league. I stamp that. We gonna have two, three folks on the All-Defensive Groups, know what I am saying. And I is perhaps on one in every of them,” Edwards joked after the win. “We positively been profitable video games on the defensive finish, man.” 

That was again in October, and although the Wolves might not have anybody make the All-Defensive crew, Edwards hasn’t been solely unsuitable in lauding Minnesota’s improved effort on that finish of the ground. That is the place Finch deserves a ton of credit score. In his first full season teaching this crew, he is elevated them from third-worst protection within the league a season in the past to rating 11th this 12 months, and eighth because the All-Star break.

“Finch has been incredible, he is been wonderful,” Towns said after a game back in February. “He is simply such a vivid thoughts in relation to basketball. … And that claims so much about Finch, the best way I really feel about Finch and the way extremely I consider him, as a result of the man earlier than him was a person I’d die for in Ryan [Saunders].” 

That is an enormous vote of confidence from Cities, and for good cause. Finch’s defensive schemes, through which KAT is taking part in much less drop protection in pick-and-rolls, and is extra energetic on the level of assault, has actually helped Minnesota not get burned as a lot by guards trying to exploit Cities’ common rim safety. This new sport plan on protection additionally performs on the strengths of men like Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels, who’ve turn into staunch perimeter defenders with their size and quickness to remain in entrance of guards. 

This entire overhaul of Minnesota’s protection, which additionally contains closing out higher on the perimeter, has taken this crew from perpetual lottery franchise to a crew that is going to be a troublesome opponent within the playoffs. Throw within the addition of defensive pest Patrick Beverley, who has helped promote taking part in grittier and edgier on protection, and you’ve got a Minnesota crew whose play is beginning to reside as much as the roster it employs.

Even outdoors of the beginning lineup, the Timberwolves’ second unit is among the many finest within the league, rating eighth within the league in factors per sport (38.1). That is credit score to guys like Malik Beasley, Taurean Prince, Naz Reid and Jaylen Nowell who’ve belief in Finch’s system, so even when the starters go to the bench, Minnesota’s nonetheless going to be aggressive on protection and push the tempo on offense. 

The Wolves’ spot within the postseason is not secured but, and a visit to the play-in event is a risk in the event that they end beneath sixth within the Western Convention. At present they sit 2.5 video games behind the Utah Jazz for the sixth spot, with a vital sport towards the Denver Nuggets looming on Friday. However Minnesota has a 92 % probability of constructing the playoffs per FiveThirtyEight, and no matter how they get to the postseason, as soon as they’re there the Timberwolves will not be a typical seventh or eighth seed that may simply be walked throughout.  

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