Playing in his first game since suffering a calf strain on November 29, Karl-Anthony Towns did not waste any time in his comeback to the hardwood for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The 27-year-old Towns grabbed a rebound barely 30 seconds into the contest versus the Atlanta Hawks and eagerly went the length of the court for a lay-up. While his shot rolled out, his aggression was an early indication that he was ready to make up for lost time.
Towns eventually hit his first field goal of the evening two minutes later as his three-pointer, created by a pick-and-pop with Mike Conley, mercifully bounced in. On their next possession, Conley fed him once again for another three which went straight through the basket this time around.
The three-time NBA All-Star wound up scoring eight points in the opening period en route to finishing with 22 points, four rebounds, three assists, and two steals in just 26 minutes of action. The opening salvo of Towns helped set the tone for the Timberwolves, though his most important points of the evening came during the last few seconds of the game.
Towns was only reinserted into the match with slightly over a minute left as Minnesota was trailing the Hawks, 122-121. Back-up center Naz Reid was rolling throughout the fourth quarter and it bought Towns some time to catch his breath. Fast forward to the last seven seconds of the game and the Timberwolves still found themselves down by a point, 124-123, albeit they had possession of the ball.
Minnesota head coach Chris Finch then asked for a timeout and drew up a play for his 6’11 star. Towns set himself up under the basket and, after receiving a screen from Conley, flared out to the top of the key to receive the inbounds pass.
Upon receiving the ball, Towns was isolated against Atlanta forward John Collins and decided to drive hard to the basket with his right hand. Towns tried to gather for a lay-up, but stumbled as Collins fouled him. The Hawks’ newly installed head coach Quin Snyder challenged the call, yet the referees ultimately ruled that it was valid and awarded Towns with two free throws.
The eight-year pro proceeded to hit two free throws with 3.6 seconds left to give the Timberwolves the lead for good, 125-124, and a stop on the other end as time expired sealed the win for them.
It was the perfect way to cap off Towns’ first game since his extended absence and the first overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft kicked off his postgame interview by saying that the moment was “what movies is made of.”
Aside from Towns, starting forward Jaden McDaniels also had a significant impact as he continued his recent string of strong performances with 25 points, six rebounds, four assists, two blocks, and no turnovers. Conley chipped in with 13 points, three rebounds, six assists, and no turnovers while starting center Rudy Gobert had 12 points, 12 rebounds, an assist, a steal, and a block.
Meanwhile, Reid came off the bench to tally 26 points on 11-of-15 shooting, eight rebounds, and two steals in only 25 minutes. He led a spirited Minnesota comeback in the final period that saw them rally back from a 10-point deficit with seven minutes left to play. His fellow reserve Taurean Prince added 15 points, two rebounds, three assists, and two steals.
Towns’ return comes at the ideal time for Minnesota as this win over Atlanta marked their third full game without their leading scorer Anthony Edwards due to an ankle sprain. They are in the thick of the play-in tournament race and, with a 37-37 win-loss record, are still within striking distance of the guaranteed playoff berths. The Timberwolves are currently in seventh place and trail the fourth place Phoenix Suns by only two games with eight outings remaining on their schedule.
Although this team has yet to be complete since the arrival of Conley prior to last month’s trade deadline, the mix of talent and veteran presence on this team will make them a tough out in the coming postseason.
They may not have been able to test their twin tower experiment of Towns and Gobert as much as they have wanted to this season due to the latter’s injury, but another strong close to the campaign, similar to last year’s gritty first round series with the Memphis Grizzlies, should give their front office some leeway to keep this group together. The on-court leadership of Conley has lifted the floor of this team and it will be fascinating to see what kind of chemistry he can build with the pair of Towns and Edwards in the coming weeks.