Published On: Mon, Mar 12th, 2018

Playing through Towns pays dividends for Wolves in massive win over Warriors

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It’s not a stretch to say the Minnesota Timberwolves may have saved their season on Sunday.

Losers of three straight games, facing five more against winning teams in the week ahead, enduringly disastrous without Jimmy Butler in the lineup, and in real danger of falling out of the ultra-cramped Western Conference playoff picture, the Wolves managed to beat the defending champion Golden State Warriors, despite an exceptionally ill-conceived Derrick Rose stint in which they got outscored by 17 points in seven minutes.

A loss would’ve dropped them to seventh in the West, and left them just a half-game up on both the ninth-place Denver Nuggets and 10th-place Utah Jazz. Instead they pulled level with the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder in a three-way tie for fourth.

As notable as the fact that the Wolves got the much-needed win, was how they did it. Namely, by playing through Karl-Anthony Towns, especially down the stretch. That probably shouldn’t come as a revelation at this point in the season, given that Towns is one of the 10 or so most gifted offensive players in the NBA, but it’s been a constant struggle for Minnesota this year.

He ranks third on the team in field-goal attempts per game, and fourth in usage rate. He’s attempting more than four fewer shots than he did a season ago, and using more than five percent fewer possessions. Despite an unguardable inside-out game, and a career-best 64.6-percent true shooting mark that’s bested only by dunk-everything centers and Steph Curry, Towns has been losing possessions to far less efficient teammates.

When Butler came aboard in the summer, it seemed reasonable to expect that Andrew Wiggins would be the guy whose role was marginalized most, given his stylistic and positional overlap with the incoming superstar. But Towns’ role has shrunk even more significantly. Before Sunday’s game, he’d had just four games in which he put up 20 shots. Wiggins, by comparison, had 13. Even in the five games the Wolves had played since Butler’s injury, his usage rate had barely ticked up, and was still lower than Wiggins’ and Jeff Teague‘s.

The production/volume dissonance was even more glaring in the clutch. Before Sunday’s game, Towns was, ridiculously, sixth on the team in crunch-time usage rate at a microscopic 14.5 percent, lower than those of Butler, Wiggins, Teague, Jamal Crawford, and Nemanja Bjelica. Maybe it was no wonder, then, that they ranked 21st in the league with a minus-7.9 net rating in the clutch.

Part of that was the product of Towns’ teammates looking him off, but much of it fell on Towns. There were too many times when he wasn’t nearly assertive enough, didn’t work hard enough to establish deep post position, didn’t make himself a target or call his own shot when he got the ball.

That changed against the Warriors. Towns was the focal point of Minnesota’s offense all game, and he rewarded the team with one of his finest performances of the season. He scored 31 points on 13-of-24 shooting (his second-highest attempt total in a game this year), and took nearly every meaningful shot down the stretch.

The Warriors threw reigning Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green at him, and rather than shrinking from the challenge, Towns leaned into it. Exploiting his considerable height advantage, he took Green into the post, and hit a baby hook over him. When the freakishly strong Green managed to push him out of the paint, Towns spun and hit a fadeaway jumper over him. When the threat of his off-the-catch jumper got Green to leave his feet, Towns blew past him and scored at the rim. He poured in 14 fourth-quarter points, and went 4-of-6 in the clutch to ice the game. One of the game’s most dynamic scorers deployed his full arsenal, and even the game’s best defender had no answer.

While Towns is capable of putting the ball on the floor and beating other bigs off the bounce, he isn’t a refined enough ballhandler (yet) to be used as a de facto guard, and because of that, the extent of his involvement in Minnesota’s offense hinges on a co-operative symbiosis between him and his teammates. Sunday’s game offered a glimpse of how successful that co-operation can be when both sides are committed to it.

“We forced it (to him),” Teague told reporters after the game, according to Jace Frederick of the Pioneer Press. “I told him to get down on that block. He got down on that block, and he made plays. He’s a talented basketball player, one of the most talented players I’ve ever seen. We need him to be big down the stretch, and he (was).”

The Wolves aren’t out of the woods by any stretch. They have road games in Washington and San Antonio up next, with home games against the Rockets and Clippers to follow. They’re still just a game up in the loss column on the teams chasing their playoff spot. If they’re to remain in the postseason picture while Butler recovers from meniscus surgery, they’ll need to return to the formula that helped produce their biggest win of the season.

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