Timberwolves 117, Raptors 112: Dare I say… progress is happening?


I don’t know how many times I am allowed to glow about Karl-Anthony Towns in a recap. At this point, it shouldn’t surprise me when he plays like he’s the best player on the floor. And it doesn’t surprise me, even when you factor in the fact that he’s 20 years old and has only played 54 games. Maybe I’m just floored continually by the fact that the Minnesota Timberwolves ended up with him when it felt like they fell so short in so many draft situations — either by bad luck or by their own misjudging of the prospect.

With Towns, you’re a little more into half a season of a very long career and there isn’t a question of what he can do. You’re left wondering what he can’t do. I’ve seen him botch quite a few outlet passes so far this season. Sometimes the ball sticks with him a bit too long. He could technically be a better rim protector, although he’s still one of the better rim protectors in the NBA. Other than that, it looks like he can do everything the team asks him to do.

Tonight, the Wolves needed him to score and score a lot. The Toronto Raptors are a potent offense and the Wolves make mediocre offenses look potent. That’s a bad combination for the Wolves on most nights. It was a bad combination for much of the first half as well. The Wolves scored 55 points and went to the free throw line 28 times in the first half. They were still down 13 and needed consistency in order to stay in the ball game.

That’s what Towns gave them. That’s what Andrew Wiggins gave them. That’s what Ricky Rubio gave them. In a game in which consistency was going to carry the Wolves through the sludge and help them endure the rough patches of the game, this is what the Wolves’ star player gave them. Overall, he set his career-high with 35 points and did it with incredible efficiency (12-of-19 FG, 11-of-13 FT). The absurd part about it was this performance not being surprising. Every shot, every offensive rebound, every free throw knocked down, and every blocked shot was expected.

Expectations can be a damning thing in the NBA. Look at how crazily Wolves fans are judging Andrew Wiggins this season. Expectations will ruin how you think of a player, but for some reason with Towns they only validate this ever-growing realization that he is a great player and he’s going to get better. A few CBSSports.com writers were discussing Towns in our work chat, and the question became which players you would trade Towns for right now.

Mostly, forget about the contract situations. I said I’d trade Towns for Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. Despite the age difference between those two and Towns, I’d take the sure thing of those two stellar basketball entities over the next 5-to-8 years just because they’re that historically special. But even then, it’s not a no-brainer because of what I think Towns can and will be. Other than that, I wouldn’t consider dealing him for anybody else in the league. Maybe that’s reactionary to the fun first 54 games of his career, but I’m usually pretty careful about that stuff.

For what it’s worth, the other writers in the conversation were struggling to come up with decisions in who you’d trade him for, so it’s not just a Wolves fan thing. People know how good he is and are stupefied by the idea of how good he may become.

But I could go on all day about Towns and how special he is. I also think Wiggins was fantastic on both ends during the second half, and you can’t say enough about the job Rubio did knocking down shots and playing great defense on Kyle Lowry. Gorgui Dieng had one of his best all-around games and I loved the way Zach LaVine attacked for most of the night.

In an ugly game with no flow due to too many whistles from the refs affecting both sides, the Wolves gutted out a win. They executed on both ends of the floor. They made plays when they needed to make plays. This has become a bit of an upturn in that department lately, and it’s hard not to notice the seemingly… competent effort… the Wolves are putting together as a team.

They’ve won three of four games heading into the break. Prior to this four-game excursion from sadness, the Wolves had won just three games out of their previous 20. Is this progress or is this just an outlier? That’s the tough thing to figure out.

Their wins weren’t bad either. Sure, they beat a Los Angeles Clippers team without Blake Griffin. They beat a Chicago Bulls team without Jimmy Butler. But this team has been so bad through so many stretches that it’s safe to say a lot of those “yeah, but [team] didn’t have [important player]” retorts don’t really apply to Wolves victories. Wins are wins for a pretty bad but young team trying to figure out the right tendencies on both ends of the floor. And it’s those tendencies that we’ve seen executed for whatever reason recently that are so encouraging and give you a glimpse into the future of this franchise.

An unpopular opinion would be to credit Sam Mitchell, and despite the groans that this will induce, I do think he deserves credit in this respect. Some of the lineups can be exploratory and still wholly confusing. His insistence that he wants the team to shoot 3-pointers but doesn’t have the 3-point shooters to attempt them is also maddening. Crediting Sam for the progress and success doesn’t mean he gets re-upped on a five-year deal. But it’s hard for me to watch the good play over the last four games (certain parts against New Orleans were OK) and ignore that the things he’s been preaching have been happening and it led to victories.

Prior to this good stretch of games, the Wolves had played in 33 games that included clutch minutes. Not surprisingly, they were 9-24 in those games with an offensive rating of 95 and a defensive rating of 109.8. That gives them the sixth worst clutch net rating in the NBA and their clutch offensive rating is second worst, just ahead of Philadelphia. They had an almost impossibly low effective field goal percentage of 35.9% in clutch situations.

In these past four games, they’ve had three contests with clutch situations and we’ve seen a reversal of fortunes. The Wolves’ offensive rating is through the roof, scoring 131.2 points per 100 clutch possessions. They’re giving up just 96.8 points per 100 clutch possessions in those three games. That’s a net rating of +34.4. In those three games, they have a clutch effective field goal percentage of 54.6%. The Wolves have executed down the stretch against the Clippers. They have executed down the stretch against the Bulls. And they did the same against the Raptors.

We saw poise. We saw guys in the right areas. We saw proper plays being made. It’s possible it was just a three-game stretch in which shots fall. When shots fall, the defense can set up better, you put more pressure on the opponent to execute, and it’s easier to reinforce what you want the team to do. Maybe it is just that simple. But I also think we’re seeing a team realize what they want to be and how they want to be it. I have no idea if they come back from the All-Star break sporting that same execution. It’s entirely possible and maybe even probable they won’t. They’ll revert back to being a bad team because it’s really hard to find consistency with a young team, especially one being coached the way it is.

I just think it’s acceptable to credit the players for doing their job and credit Sam for doing his. It doesn’t mean you give in on what you want for this team. It’s just credit should be properly distributed when things go well. Things are going well right now. And thanks to the existence of Karl-Anthony Towns, you expect things to go well in the future.

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6 Responsesso far.

  1. DarKen says:

    Great core for the wolves. Towns, Wiggings and Rubio are yet the really really close, bright future of the nba. Just wait a couple of years… or maybe less.

  2. Chris says:

    ” But it’s hard for me to watch the good play over the last four games (certain parts against New Orleans were OK) and ignore that the things he’s been preaching have been happening and it led to victories.”

    I think this is a critical statement. We can complain about the rotations and lineups, but when guys actually follow the instructions their coach gives them and it leads to wins, then the coach and players should get credit. If we are going to hold Sam to a high standard, we have to hold the players to that same standard as far as following the coaching instructions they receive. Last night, and recently, we have seen improvement from both the coach and the players.

  3. Open43 says:

    I love the dog days of NBA basketball. The weeks right before the All Star break where teams are not quite in the playoff push and bad teams go into tanking mode. Good teams don’t have the same edge and the bad teams haven’t given up yet. It’s the Linsanity part of the season. Crazy stuff just happens, but it’s absolutely necessary for bad teams to give their fan base some kind of hope to the future. I’m pretty sure if the Raptors needed this game, they would have found a way to win, but for now, I’m looking forward to winning more regularly.

  4. pyrrol says:

    Congratulations to the guys! That was a fun, well played game and we showed grit.

    We are in a new mode. For most of the new year we’ve been hopeless. Lately, we’ve had good games mixed with hopeless games. It is tempting when the Wolves play this well to state simply they’ve progressed. But then the next game we lay an egg. In other words, we’ve progressed out of the basement, but we are still at a point of wild inconsistency where you relish the games we play near potential because they still don’t come often enough. Expect wild inconsistency and bad losses for the rest of the season.

    Kudos are in order for Sam, he’s running things better lately and this game was a good example. It must have been fun to win against his old team. On the other hand, one must question why it took so long, over half a season, to figure out some of these basic line-up things, like playing Zach off the ball. We must also acknowledge that some of the good rotation things are due to accidents because injuries forced Sam’s hand. Having Dieng’s more rounded game in the starting line-up has been a huge boost (Dieng is at his best when paired with the attention grabbing game of Towns) but this only happened because Garnett’s knee went bad. Prince was out for personal reasons this game and Sam decided to respond with Zach starting at the 2. This put Wiggins at his more natural 3 position as well. It added offense and speed to the starting line-up. It’s already been mentioned on here, but might it not be a good idea to do this all the time and shore up the bench D with Prince there? This game is exhibit A in how to better use the old vets, and the only reason we got to see the exhibit is because of their absence from being able to play. So, the kudos are limited.

    Towns is amazing. It’s why I was terrified we would not pick him, sweating bullets during the draft. We did. Maybe I’ve been sold on youthful potential too long, but I’d rather have Towns than Durrant or Curry and I enjoy watching him more than those guys already (and I’m a big Durrant fan).

  5. Cm1 says:

    I’m higher on Sam Mitchell than most people. I feel he’s excecuted the developmental plan exceptionally well. He used the vets to give the squad an NBA skeleton until they could be filled in with younger minutes. I feel it would be inconsequential at best to bring in a new coach. I think the staff in general is contributing positively. He has the right mentality, and when the players execute the are competitive. My projection was that the team would be worth watching come spring. Up until recently it was starting to look like they were behind schedule, and there will be painful games yet. But the adjustments are being made. It’s obvious they are learning.

    Regarding the 3 point shots, the reality is that they can be replaced by trips to the free throw line. Historically players become more consistent beyond the arc as they mature. This team is shooting well from the line. If you simply put three pointers and trips to the line in the same metric, they are fairing just fine in high efficiency attempts.

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