Six days ago, it looked like the Minnesota Timberwolves were ready to call it a season.
Today, they are heading to the NBA Playoffs for the second consecutive year–a feat that they have not achieved since 2004.
Rudy Gobert returned from a one-game suspension for punching teammate Kyle Anderson to help the Timberwolves pull off a dominant 120-95 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the play-in tournament finale.
Minnesota will now face the Western Conference’s top seed, the Denver Nuggets, in a best-of-seven series in the first round of the postseason.
The three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Gobert finished with 21 points on six-of-11 field goals, 10 rebounds, and two assists in the win, punctuating his performance with a fancy behind-the-back dribble to end the third quarter.
However, it was the other half of the Timberwolves’ “Twin Towers” who made the biggest impact on the game.
Karl-Anthony Towns led Minnesota with 28 points on 11-of-16 shooting, 11 rebounds, three assists, and three blocks in only 29 minutes of action. It was Towns who helped the Timberwolves pull away from the Thunder at the beginning of the second quarter as they turned a one-point lead into a 14-point edge by the middle of the period.
The 6’11 Towns scored nine of the team’s 21 points over that stretch as he asserted his dominance over Oklahoma City’s smaller frontcourt. The Thunder whitted down Minnesota’s lead to seven at halftime, though Towns responded with an 11-point third quarter to give them a 17-point lead by the start of the final period that ultimately put the game out of reach.
The Timberwolves put up an inspiring performance in the win and bounced back from their disappointing overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in their play-in opener.
Anthony Edwards bounced back strong from a poor showing versus the Lakers where he had nine points and shot three-of-17 from the field. Edwards tallied 19 points, although he was still quite inefficient and needed 19 shots, along with 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals, and a block. His backcourt partner Mike Conley added 14 points, three rebounds, three assists, three steals, a block, and only one turnover.
Midseason acquisition Nickeil Alexander-Walker made a difference as well filling in for injured starter Jaden McDaniels who fractured his hand when he punched a wall during the same game that Gobert and Anderson had their incident. The 24-year-old Alexander-Walker took on McDaniels’ role as the team’s primary perimeter defender and was tasked with covering Oklahoma City’s star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander from the opening tip.
Alexander-Walker did a phenomenal job on his cousin Gilgeous-Alexander and hounded the newly minted NBA All-Star to a paltry five-of-19 shooting night. Gilgeous-Alexander still found a way to remain effective, hitting all 12 of his free throw attempts to wind up with 22 points, yet the efforts of Alexander-Walker were enough to throw the main driver of the Thunder’s offense out of sync.
Aside from his top tier defense, Alexander-Walker also finished with a quality statline, putting up 12 points, four rebounds, six assists, three steals, and two blocks in 37 minutes.
In addition to Minnesota’s five starters, Anderson also had an effective outing as a reserve for the team with 11 points, six rebounds, four assists, and a block. The 6’9 forward led the team in +/- at +25 as he continued to star in his role as one of the team’s primary facilitators when its stars are on the bench.
The 29-year-old Anderson’s most notable play of the game came late in the second quarter when he found Gobert in transition for an alley-oop dunk, hinting that these two teammates have put their altercation behind them.
The Timberwolves will need more of the same for their core group if they are to go toe-to-toe with the Nuggets in their upcoming match-up.
Minnesota’s size will once again be crucial for them as it should help them compete with Denver’s star and reigning two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets’ rotation also lacks height beyond Jokic so it will be interesting to see how they compete with the Timberwolves’ supersized frontcourt.
Narratives can change quickly in the NBA and this rollercoaster week that Minnesota has just gone through is the perfect encapsulation of this phenomenon. A valiant showing in their series with Denver can quickly change the perception of what has been a relatively disappointing season so far.
While an upset seems unlikely, stranger things have happened in this league and with the way this unconventional Timberwolves team is constructed, it is a fool’s errand to count them out.