MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Timberwolves flourished in their first full season under coach Chris Finch, leading the NBA in scoring, improving on defense and reviving their long-frustrated fan base while reaching the playoffs for the first time in four years.
They pushed the Memphis Grizzlies hard once they got there, too, outplaying the No. 2 seed in the majority of games before those fourth quarter failures became too much to overcome. The Grizzlies won the first-round series in six games.
More progress is no guarantee in this league, though. Taking the step to be where Memphis is this weekend with fellow Western Conference semifinalists Phoenix, Golden State and Dallas will be tough enough. There are other teams to fend off, too.
“The Clippers will be healthy. Who knows what the Lakers are going to do? Denver should be healthier. So there’s definitely teams that’ll be rising up,” Finch said. “There’s also those teams that end up kind of puking on themselves, and we just can’t be one of them.”
After so much turnover throughout the career of franchise centerpiece Karl-Anthony Towns — with players, coaches and executives — the Timberwolves have finally established a chemistry and a culture that works, even if they’ll need to make more adjustments and enhancements to the roster.
“Everyone wants to go to the same hotel room and hang out with each other,” Towns said. “It’s very funny to see 15 millionaires arguing about pizza. We could all just buy our own pie at that point.”
The exit interviews with players on Saturday morning were revealing to Finch.
“Nobody had any plans. Nobody had given much thought about what they’re going to do now, which means they were still completely locked in, thought they were going to win, thought we would be moving on to a Game 7 and beyond,” Finch said.
The Grizzlies became the first team in NBA history with multiple victories in a playoff series after facing fourth-quarter deficits of 10 points or more, a feat they accomplished three times against the Wolves. Finch repeatedly pointed to the drawback of “hero ball,” when their leading scorers — Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell — stagnate the offense by valiantly but overconfidently trying to win the game with one big shot.
The long-term benefit to the lost late leads against the Grizzlies was the way it exposed the weaknesses in their game.
“I think that’s something that now resonates with the players, when you’re harping on it on a daily basis, but they haven’t yet really paid the price for it. Those are just lessons that you learn. Do not touch that, it’s hot, type stuff,” Finch said.
The Big 3
Finch said he didn’t think the Wolves ever “ultimately maximized” the collective abilities of Towns, Edwards and Russell in a symbiotic way this season.
The Grizzlies had success double-teaming Towns in the post, as one example of an area of growth. Edwards had 151 points in the series, the most in franchise history for a playoff series, but his performance was uneven at times, too.
“I still don’t make a lot of reads that I should make to soften the defense up, but I will after this summer,” Edwards said. “Just watching film, knowing what to expect, how they’re going to guard you, what they’re going to throw at you.”
New deal for D-Loading?
Russell will enter the final season of the maximum contract he signed as part of the trade that sent him from Brooklyn to Golden State three years ago, and it’s not clear yet whether the Wolves will commit to him as part of the core with Towns and Edwards beyond the upcoming season.
The seventh-year veteran had an up-and-down series. Backup point guard Jordan McLaughlin was running the offense so effectively down the stretch in Game 6 that Russell spent most of the fourth quarter on the bench, an understandable decision by Finch that Russell predictably said he was not happy with. Russell also acknowledged his on-court chemistry with Towns has been “rocky” over the two years they’ve been together, interrupted often by injuries and COVID-19.
“I think we’re such fans of each other that we found a way to make it work in moments where you probably didn’t have the chemistry,” Russell said.
Who’s the boss?
The sudden dismissal of Gersson Rosas as president of basketball operations right before the season began led to the elevation of Sachin Gupta to the role on an interim basis, and his status has yet to be finalized. Finch, who was given a contract extension earlier this month, has made it clear he wants to continue working for him.
“He’s been a huge reason that we have stability in this organization right now,” Finch said.
Edwards gets most of the spotlight, but the other player the Wolves plucked in that 2020 draft, Jaden McDaniels, has given them another promising building block as an athletic, reliable two-way forward. He set a team postseason record in Game 6 on Friday with 24 points off the bench.
“The sky is the limit for both of us and where we can be in the next couple years,” McDaniels said. “I’m just excited to see that.”