With two minutes left in the fourth quarter on Wednesday, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins gave downtrodden Minnesota Timberwolves fans something to believe in.
The Wolves had watched as the New Orleans Pelicans erased a 21-point deficit to turn the game into a scratch-and-claw street fight. Trailing by four, the Pelicans put the ball in the hands of Anthony Davis—an MVP candidate, a top-five player, the very model of a 21st-century NBA big man, and something like the best-case-scenario outcome for Towns—and trusted him to bulldoze his younger counterpart to get within two. On a lot of nights, that’s what would have happened; Davis is too good, and Towns too inconsistent a defender, for it to turn out differently. This time, though? It turned out differently:
Playing with five personal fouls, Towns rode the razor’s edge. He absorbed contact from Davis, slid his feet, kept his hands high, then timed AD’s move to the rim perfectly to block the layup attempt off the glass. Then he corralled the loose ball and started the break. After an outlet to Andrew Wiggins, Towns hustled into the frontcourt, took a pitch back and set up for a quick-hitting dribble-handoff.
But instead of running through the expected action toward the center of the court, Wiggins stutter-stepped and darted away from Towns toward the baseline, a step ahead of ace Pelicans defender Jrue Holiday. Towns made the give-and-go read, lofting a pass over the top of the defense that led Wiggins into the lane with a head of steam to take on the rotating Nikola Mirotic at the rim. Wiggins won to such a degree that Mirotic was assessed a foul for, I guess, getting his nards in the way of Maple Jordan’s foot:
Andrew Wiggins really kicked him in the balls then dunked it...lol pic.twitter.com/SrkrfVXe6H— gifdsports (@gifdsports) November 15, 2018
Better than the Jordan Jumpman logo pic.twitter.com/MDLtr9L847— gifdsports (@gifdsports) November 15, 2018
It felt like these two possessions mattered, or at least to the extent that two possessions on a Wednesday in November can matter. There was Towns, going one-on-one with one of the best in the world when the Wolves desperately needed a stop, and getting the job done. There was Wiggins, choosing to be aggressive when the Wolves desperately needed a bucket, and using all that athleticism to blast to the rim and blow the Target Center’s roof off.
There were Minnesota’s two maximum-salaried young cornerstones, sloughing off the sleepy play that had winnowed the team’s lead and putting the game to bed, sending the Wolves on to a 107-100 victory. Towns and Wiggins made “winning plays,” according to head coach Tom Thibodeau—the sort that Jimmy Butler didn’t seem to believe they’d ever make consistently enough to win anything of consequence. Now, Butler’s in Philadelphia, with new problems to solve. Minnesota, on the other hand, has two wins in two tries without Butler, and, seemingly, a new lease on life.
The Wolves looked like two different teams on Wednesday. One was electric and energetic, the kind of hot young upstart you’d expect to be built around a pair of preternaturally gifted 23-year-olds. That version raced out of the gates, dominating the visiting Pelicans for the first quarter and a half.
Minnesota’s early offense leaned on the pick-and-roll partnership of Towns and point guard Jeff Teague, with Wiggins, new arrival Robert Covington, and stalwart veteran forward Taj Gibson spacing the floor. The second unit kept that same energy, with exciting rookie Josh Okogie stroking the 3, and ex-Sixer Dario Saric craftily making and finishing plays. The result: a positively modern attack that scored 52 points in just over 18 minutes with 17 assists on 20 made field goals, consistently staying one step ahead of the Pelicans defense.
But halfway through the second quarter, the team the Wolves might be gave way to the team the Wolves have been for most of this season.
The Towns-Teague pick-and-roll vanished, and so did Minnesota’s ball movement. After rampaging his way to 15 points and nine rebounds in the first quarter, Towns receded from view, thanks in part to committing a couple of the kind of bad fouls Minnesota needs him to avoid. Wiggins continued to shoot 3-pointers when New Orleans gave him space, but often appeared content to drift along the outskirts of the action.
Pounding the ball into the post made the Wolves slower, much more stagnant, and much easier for the Pelicans to guard. From the middle of the second through the end of the third, the Wolves committed nine turnovers, four by Towns alone, which helped jump-start New Orleans’s flagging offense. With guards Holiday and E’Twaun Moore slicing through a steps-slow Minnesota defense to lead the way, the Pelicans flipped the script and blitzed the sleepwalking Wolves, coming all the way back to take a 96-94 lead on a Holiday jumper with 4:40 to go in regulation.
What saved the Wolves on Wednesday were a few late bursts of energy. With the lead teetering early in the fourth, Okogie gave Minny some breathing room:
The Pelicans wound up coming back to take a lead, but Josh Okogie looked like he saved the game for the flagging Wolves last night with some early fourth-quarter energy. Dude just plays really hard, and he's ready to fire as soon as he gets it. A very helpful player. pic.twitter.com/RGgWUiY9nK— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) November 15, 2018
And after the Pelicans took the lead, the Wolves’ young stars stood up. Wiggins drilled a left-wing 3 off a great cross-court kickout from Gibson, then stole the ball from Wesley Johnson and sprinted down the floor to earn free throws. Towns and Teague went back to the screen game, and got an and-1 layup out of it. Towns and Wiggins both crashed the offensive glass to extend a possession with just under two and a half minutes to go, eventually leading to Gibson free throws. Then came the block, and the dunk, and the win.
Those bursts need to become the rule, rather than the exception. But it’s heartening that they’re coming at all. Towns (25 points on 9-for-17 shooting, 16 rebounds, three assists, two blocks) got the better of Davis (who needed 25 shots to score 29) when it counted. Wiggins cranked it up late, scoring nine of his season-high 23 points in the fourth quarter; more importantly, he was active, looking for ways to make his athleticism matter, which is half the battle with him. (Maybe even more than that.)
The combination of Okogie and Covington looks like it might give opposing wing units nightmares defensively. Saric might be just what the doctor ordered as a playmaking floor-spacer who’s also willing to do battle with the likes of Davis and Randle down low. If Tyus Jones can find some rhythm after a cold start to the season, Minnesota might have a bench that could cause problems.
How the new mix will look on a night when Derrick Rose is available—he missed Wednesday’s game with a sore left knee—remains to be seen. (Rose might have commandeered a lot of the playmaking opportunities that Wiggins used in the fourth, but he also probably would have kept the Wolves offense afloat rather than allowing it to capsize midgame.) The hope, though, is that Thibodeau saw Wednesday what the Wolves can be: a team with more life, energy, and spirit than before. The post-Jimmy Wolves might not wind up being all that good, but they’re already a lot more fun to watch. For now, at least, that’s something.