The Timberwolves haven’t found the heart they had last season
By Jon Krawczynski
Nov 8, 2022
MINNEAPOLIS — This loss wasn’t about a uniquely constructed roster acclimating to a new lynchpin. It wasn’t about the increased expectations for a team that came out of nowhere last season. It wasn’t about good looks just not falling or Karl-Anthony Towns missing training camp or Rudy Gobert easing into the season after the physically taxing EuroBasket tournament.
All of those excuses, and more, have been used by the Timberwolves to explain away losses early this season. And all of them have held merit at one time or another through the first 10 games. Not in Game 11 Monday night against the New York Knicks.
The 120-107 loss to the Knicks, a wretched, lifeless performance in front of a hometown crowd that so desperately wants these Wolves to give them a reason to cheer instead of a reason to boo, was about something much more existential. It was about fiber, about character, about heart. The Timberwolves showed none of those things on Monday night, trailing by as many 27 points and allowing a less talented Knicks team do whatever it wanted all game long.
A team that forced this long-suffering basketball market to fall in love with it last season by playing hard, sharing the ball, defending like mad men, talking trash and howling at the moon has had a completely different persona early this season. They hold the ball, do not get out and run, settle for jumpers, refuse to close out to shooters and, most maddeningly, sulk through games with slumped shoulders and furrowed brows. For a team with plenty of talent, the Wolves have made things so much harder on themselves than it has to be.
So far this season, they are a joyless team, fitting considering Tom Thibodeau was on the opposite bench leading the Knicks on Monday night. The boos started to rain down on Thibodeau in the pregame introductions but were directed at the Wolves players when they let the Knicks’ mediocre offense explode for 76 points in the first half.
“I just want to go home happy one of these nights, versus a good team,” Anthony Edwards said. “Like, we played Houston, we beat Houston, everybody was happy. But we’ve got Phoenix next. I want to be able to go home at night and be happy with my dogs. My nephew’s in town. I want to be happy around my nephew, so I want to have a great game the next game.”
The tension is palpable, as it should be. Players seethed and simmered in the locker room after the game, some misdirecting their frustration at media looking for answers that the players do not appear to have.
“We were losing to the New York Knicks by 30,” Edwards said to Naz Reid and Taurean Prince as he headed to the showers, a tone of exasperation in his voice.
The Wolves have trailed by at least 18 points in five of their 11 games. The clunky play they have exhibited offensively with Gobert in the lineup has been expected and understandable given massive adjustments they have had to make to accommodate him on both ends of the floor. But Gobert wasn’t there to blame on Monday night, sitting out his second straight game while in health and safety protocols. The Timberwolves have yet to deploy any sense of urgency or desperation — the hallmarks of last season’s playoff team — to compensate for the uneven execution that comes with newness.
“We just play soft, man,” Edwards said later at his locker after missing six of his seven 3s and finishing with 16 points and nine rebounds. “Like, every bump, we flying all over the place, including myself. Teams just coming in like, ‘We’re going to take their heart,’ and that’s what’s going on. We’re down 20 every game. We’ve got to figure it out.”
That word — “soft” — carries such a heavy connotation in Minnesota. Towns has heard it for years, ever since Jimmy Butler burned the whole place down on his way out of town. Last year, the Wolves were anything but soft. They fought you tooth and nail, from the opening tip to the final horn, inspiring a long-suffering fan base and achieving more together than any of them would have apart.
This year’s team has outrebounded its opponent twice, given up double-digit offensive rebounds eight times and delivered two truly lethargic performances at home — against San Antonio on the second night of a back-to-back and Monday night against the Knicks.
“Right now, I think we have to find a combination of guys that are going to play much harder, give themselves up to what we’re trying to do, and we’re always looking for what we can try to do a little bit better,” coach Chris Finch said. “I need to give them some solutions right now. It’s on me.”
Listen to those words from Edwards and Finch. Speaking openly of their hearts being taken and not playing hard enough. That is not a matter of a schematic element that just isn’t clicking or a shooting slump in a small sample size. That is what is inside this group at the moment, and it starts with their backcourt.
And if that’s not enough, how about assistant coach Micah Nori during his halftime interview with Bally’s Sports North after the Wolves gave up 25 points to the Knicks off 12 turnovers while scoring none themselves. That was indicative of a team that not only was sloppy on offense and lazy in getting back to defend in transition but also a group that didn’t get into the Knicks with any effort to create their own turnovers.
“We need to find five guys that are going to compete, especially on the defensive end of the floor. … At the end of the day, it’s not about scheme, it’s not about this. It’s just about competing,” Nori said. “It’s a shame when you’re 11 games in and talking about competing and playing hard.”
Edwards said he has to be better, and it is hard to argue with him. He just wasn’t there at the start of this game, and that has been too common an occurrence through the first 11 for a player who did so much in his first two seasons to put himself in position for a breakout third year. He is the crowd favorite, the one capable of grabbing control of a game with outside shooting or driving to the basket. He scored at least 30 points in three of the first five games and was one of only two Timberwolves on the roster (with Prince) shooting a better percentage from 3-point land than his career number.
But he also acknowledged last month after a nine-point outing against San Antonio that the league knows he doesn’t show up on the second nights of a back-to-back. He was seen standing stationary with his hands on his hips for an entire possession against Houston. The play was not drawn up for him, but the optics still were not great. He also has said his legs have been tired, which has made it more difficult to dunk this season, and expressed frustration at the lack of open lanes for him to attack. He is facing real adversity, and the Timberwolves need more from him than they got in the first half on Monday night.
Edwards was 0-for-2 with a turnover in the first quarter and scored just five points on 1-for-5 shooting and three turnovers in the first half. He turned down shots at the rim for wild kickouts that were intercepted, left Julius Randle wide open after he had already made five 3-pointers in the first half so he could easily bury the sixth and also forced a transition pass to Reid that was easily picked off and led to a 3 from Obi Toppin that made the score 48-29.
“We’re going to try to figure it out, because that’s what it looks like right now,” Edwards said of his characterizing the team as soft. “That’s what teams are saying, from the looks of it. They’re coming out, ‘We’re going to punk them.’ So that’s what’s going on.”
There have been too many times already this season when Edwards has said some variation of, “We’ve got to figure it out.” He is the future of this organization, a wonderfully talented, charismatic 21-year-old who has the physical tools to be an All-NBA player for the next decade or more. The Timberwolves are asking a lot of their 21-year-old star, on both ends of the court, and the growing pains he is experiencing right now are especially painful.
With Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt gone, the hope was that Edwards’ speed and explosiveness would be one of the main sources of jet fuel that those two indefatigable role players provided on a nightly basis. And yet he has dunked just twice this season and has fluctuated between exceptional on-ball defense in moments and head-scratching inattention when he is off the ball.
“When things aren’t going well and he hasn’t been in the game, or any of our guys, and he comes in and takes a one-pass shot when the game is starting to turn against you. Now it’s like an avalanche,” Finch said. “I would’ve liked to see all of us have a little more composure.”
Edwards’ starting point guard isn’t helping him out. D’Angelo Russell’s deliberate pace, reckless turnovers and inability to shoot all make life harder for Edwards. Russell scored 14 points against the Knicks on 4-for-12 shooting with eight assists and two blocked shots. He did go 4-for-10 from 3 while the rest of the team went 7-for-31, but his shot selection, decision-making in the open floor and inability to get the team playing with pace all are contributing to Edwards’ funk.
Russell missed layups, air-balled 3s and entered the game shooting 38 percent from the field and 28 percent from deep.
It felt like a throwback night in Minnesota, with Towns putting up big numbers, his teammates generally playing poorly and the Timberwolves leaving with a decisive defeat. Towns was 9-for-12 from the field for 25 points with 13 rebounds, seven assists and two steals. On a night when so many other players gave questionable effort or didn’t share the ball, Towns was easily their best player.
But back playing the five with Gobert out, Towns couldn’t anchor any sustained efforts on defense and struggled to close out to 3-point shooters. The Knicks made 19 of 48 3s (39.6 percent) compared to just 11-for-41 (26.8 percent) for the Wolves. Towns was just 1-for-3 and made three ill-advised turnovers as well.
“I just see too much daylight between us and our opponent,” Finch said. “Too much daylight when they have the ball, too much daylight when they’re coming off an action or a screen. I don’t see us being into the ball and being disruptive and putting all those efforts in that we need to.”
No one was absolved on Monday night. Jaden McDaniels fouled out in 16:33. Kyle Anderson was another one who struggled to close out on 3-point shooters, Jaylen Nowell was a minus-19 in 10:34, Jordan McLaughlin had a hard time covering Jalen Brunson.
About the only player who showed the requisite fight was Austin Rivers, who scored nine points and was a plus-11 in 15:43. Finch went to the veteran out of desperation and Rivers provided some physical defense, and a plain-spoken evaluation of the team’s issues after the game.
“We’ve got to lock the f— in,” Rivers said. “Buy in, lock in. Know who we’re playing. Respect the craft. Respect the game. They beat our ass tonight. We’re in no position to go into any game thinking any game is sweet. We got to get it out the mud.”
The Timberwolves have been missing a voice like that since Beverley was traded in the Gobert deal. Beverley may have started to get under a few skins toward the end of last season, but he certainly got his teammates to listen. Towns has not inspired the same following. Edwards is still too young and making too many mistakes. Russell isn’t playing well enough.
Taurean Prince has been lauded for bringing the team together and holding teammates accountable in the film room, but he needs help. Maybe Rivers can be that voice.
“The good thing is, all these young guys here listen. They do,” Rivers said. “They’re all receptive of it. We’ve just got to keep talking, keep pushing each other forward and the snowball can go the other way where we’re running games off and this can be a distant memory. This stuff is good for you if you let it be, these early struggles and obstacles can bring a team together, so that’s what I’m looking forward to helping.”
The Timberwolves have not played well for an entire game yet this season. They have not beaten a team of consequence yet, either. They have rightly preached patience as they acclimate to a new way of playing with Gobert in the fold, but there is a stark difference between exhibiting patience and indifference.
The biggest concern right now, the reason the Wolves need to stop shrugging their shoulders and assuming that the only thing they are missing is time on the court together. They need some heart, some pride and a sense of urgency.
“We need somebody who is going to be a bit of a tone setter,” Finch said.
It’s one thing for the Wolves to be patient and not panic. They are 5-6, not 2-9, and they started 4-9 last season before rallying to make the playoffs. Right now, all the fight and the hunger and the relentlessness of that team is nowhere to be found.
“That was a good team, but we’re in the future now; we’re not in the past anymore,” Reid said. “This team is a team that can go really far if we just play hard, lock-in and do what we’re supposed to do.”