Those are his words, not mine.
Following a road loss in which Karl-Anthony Towns led the Minnesota Timberwolves with 32 points (13-of-17 FG, 1-of-2 3FG, 5-of-5 FT). He added 12 rebounds, one assist, one steal, and one block. He also had five turnovers and had a tough time keeping Rudy Gobert away from having his way inside. Gobert bullied him a bit in that game, and the Utah Jazz scored 50 of their 103 points in the paint. But it was early on when Towns was just picking apart a Jazz defense that needed to swap assignments.
In the first few minutes of the game, Gobert was matched up against Towns and the Wolves put him in pick-and-pop sets. Ricky Rubio would suck in the defense and Gobert couldn’t recover to handle the mid-range shots. It looked like the Wolves were going to be able to exploit this mismatch in these types of plays. After all, the best way to beat a rim protector is by either not taking shots at the rim or making him cheat out on a shooter to open the rim up. Quin Snyder had a counter for it though, and the Jazz switched Gobert onto Gorgui Dieng while Derrick Favors hung with Towns.
This proved to be the right mix for Utah. The Wolves still had a big game from their frontcourt with Dieng chipping in 20 points and 15 rebounds, but the Wolves’ one potential match-up advantage early on wasn’t silenced but it was accounted for. Everything else would have to come at a much steeper price of effort later on in the game, especially when the Jazz went on a 14-0 run late in the third quarter to take control of the game.
What’s interesting to me though is the reaction of Towns after such a highly efficient individual performance.
“I played like crap today,” Towns said after the game. “I didn’t play well at all, defensively. Offensively, I was just finding spots. My teammates was the one that got me points. I didn’t get points. When I tried to make something for myself, I was missing layups. My teammates were the ones who made the stat sheet; I didn’t.”
This isn’t the first time Towns has downplayed his own impressive performance while taking the blame for the team’s loss and crediting his teammates for his own stats. In reality, Towns struggled at times tonight, especially on the defensive end against Gobert and Favors. But he also kept the Wolves in it during the first half by helping pace them early on. His offensive spots, nudged into scoring opportunities by Rubio’s passing, were just him showing smart awareness of the space being sacrificed by the Jazz defense.
And yet, it wasn’t good enough to him. His five turnovers consisted of leading Zach LaVine too much on a pass as he came around Towns on a fake hand-off, an illegal screen, bobbling a pass on a fast break that Rubio threw a bit behind him, a bad outlet pass, and a 3-second violation. I’m not sure the pass from Rubio that Towns fumbled and the Jazz transition defense scooped up should be counted against him, but even if not, four turnovers can’t be something Towns is happy committing.
When we talk about development, what are we talking about? What do we mean? Was Towns’ 32 points and 12 rebounds against one of the toughest frontcourts in the NBA a sign of development or was his disgust in his mistakes more of a sign pointing towards improving? It’s an interesting concept to ponder because we use this word so much but rarely seem to know just how to quantify it. Does it mean a certain number of wins, points, rebounds, field goal percentage, close losses? Where does the improvement show itself? Is it just an eye test thing we convince ourselves to be true?
Towns did struggle some defensively. I thought the majority of his mistakes came early when the Wolves’ offense seemed to be humming but they couldn’t get any distance between them and the Jazz. Utah just kept coming back and scoring when it was their turn.
KAT had a few plays in a short amount of time in which his bad decisions led to buckets. Like when he gambled for a steal in the lane during pick-and-roll coverage, which gave Gobert an open dunk.
Or when he didn’t get low enough and position himself well enough against Gobert in the post to stand his ground when Rudy put his shoulder into him. Towns was knocked out of position and Gobert got an easy layup out of it.
Or when a tipped pass led to a broken play in which Gordon Hayward cut right down the lane and Towns was caught shading toward a Favors 20-footer when he didn’t have the ball, rather than being in proper help defense to cut off the middle.
When Towns says he was “terrible,” it’s knowing these mistakes existed during the game that allowed the Jazz to get easy baskets and find a rhythm. He and the Wolves know you can’t have lapses in focus and execution to allow these plays to happen, and Towns was the culprit on quite a few. It’s an interesting look into development to see how much he recognized those moments, but you also don’t want those moments to consume Towns either.
Recognition is great. Learning from them is even better. Beating yourself up over them has a line you should approach but not cross. I think he has the right balance between it all. He’s a fantastic player with unbelievable instincts at 20. But he’s still a 20-year old rookie and those mistakes are going to crop up every game as he learns the application of his lessons. It’s good to focus on the bad, but you also don’t want to dismiss the good. Towns made sure to give his teammates credit.
He recognized he doesn’t get those open jumpers and buckets without Ricky Rubio and other teammates drawing the defense away from him on pick-and-roll and hand-off plays. He recognized that Gorgui Dieng’s big game was an essential complement to everything he did on the court.
“G played outstanding tonight,” Towns said. “Without him, who knows where this game would’ve been.”
There was one play that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet that I wanted to show. It was a play early on in the fourth quarter in which Towns fought the entire possession in a game he was feeling frustrated and made three pretty good passes all on the same play that none of them register in the traditional box score.
A pick-and-roll between LaVine and Dieng ends up giving a passing window into Towns on the weak side block. LaVine finds him and Towns goes into a quick post-up against Favors. Gobert cheats over to try to block a potential hook shot out of the post but Towns recognizes it. He passes the ball out to Gorgui for a mid-range jumper. Dieng’s jumper misses long to the other side of the rim, where Towns is there to snatch the rebound from the grasp of Favors and Gobert.
Once he’s clear from a help defender, Towns goes right back into a post-up against Favors. He drop-steps toward the middle, where Gobert and Christapher Johnson help. Possibly through some contact on the arm from Johnson, once again Towns finds an open man on the baseline. Shabazz Muhammad drives, puts up a floater that misses, and Gorgui keeps a rebound opportunity alive that the Jazz eventually slap back to Towns. KAT hunts out the loose ball and immediately fires it down to Bazz, who gets fouled on his layup attempt.
Bazz would miss the two free throws, so nothing came from it, but look at those passing skills creating great opportunities for his teammates. It’s stuff like this that makes you realize just how special he is. It’s also why when you ask a teammate if Towns played like crap like he assessed, Zach LaVine responds with, “I don’t know about that,” dismissing his teammate’s claim.
Towns is special. If that’s playing like crap, imagine what it’s going to look like in even just three years when he’s 23 and feels he’s playing well. Look at per possession numbers for rookies in the history of this league and you’ll see only two other guys with Towns’ numbers:
One more note…
For most of the month of December, I was pretty happy with the play of Zach LaVine. I thought he was really coming around on both playmaking and as a scorer. Then at the end of the month and through a stretch of 14 games, LaVine just couldn’t buy a shot. From December 30th to January 23rd, Zach made just 33.7% of his shots (38.9% from 3-point range), and was averaging 5.8 points on 6.4 shots in 19.1 minutes per game.
Sam Mitchell was being extremely hard on him and some wondered if LaVine’s confidence was wavering at all. Over the last three games, LaVine has broken out of that shooting funk in spectacular fashion. In games against Cleveland, OKC, and Utah, LaVine is averaging 25 points on 14.7 shots and shooting 70.5% from the field and 46.7% from deep. In the three games prior to that, he had taken 12 shots total, which is the same number of shots he took against Utah Friday night.
“I just went through a stretch when I wasn’t making some shots,” LaVine said. “I wasn’t taking a lot of shots either. I was going like 1-for-4, 2-for-5 something like that. You’re not going to get 12, 15 points off of five shots. Just being a little more aggressive. I was trying to play the point guard position at that time, showing coach I can play the point guard spot. Pass it around. Get people shots. I felt comfortable this whole month. The NBA’s long. You go through stretches where you’re coming off the bench and you’re not in rhythm all the time.”
It’s good to see a confident LaVine return to the court. It reminds me of the scene in The Fan when Wesley Snipes has broken out of his slump and tells crazy Robert De Niro that the reason is he just stopped caring. That causes De Niro to fire a fastball at Snipes’ head and then go on to make a lot of horrible movies over the next 20 years, but sometimes just thinking through too many things can be a nuisance. And LaVine has been trying to explicitly prove to his coach he can play a tougher position. And now, he’s just going out and playing and we get to enjoy the results of it turning simplistic.
“I’m just going out and playing,” LaVine admitted. “I don’t care where they put me at. 1, 2, 3. Try the 5. I can post up a little bit. I don’t know if I can go against Gobert but the point guard, 2-guard I can post up a little bit. I feel real comfortable right now.”
I like seeing a comfortable Zach LaVine.