EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Timberwolves finally at full strength ahead of crucial matchup vs. Suns
Mar 28, 2023, 7:15 PM | Updated: 7:29 pm
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
PHOENIX — There will always be at least one team in the NBA that puts something together after the All-Star break to play its best basketball just before the postseason.
Last year, it was the New Orleans Pelicans with the fresh addition of C.J. McCollum. This year, it looks like it will be the Minnesota Timberwolves with the fresh addition of Mike Conley.
The Timberwolves enter Wednesday’s matchup with the Phoenix Suns on a four-game winning streak that includes recent road wins over the New York Knicks, Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings. The slight surge now has them at 39-37, tied for sixth in the Western Conference and two games back in the loss column of the fourth place Suns. If Phoenix wins, it locks in the tiebreaker. If Minnesota wins, the tiebreaker goes to conference record, which would come down to the wire.
While it’s nothing like white-hot basketball from the Timberwolves, the timing has been everything. Conley is now over six weeks into his acclimation process after being dealt to Minnesota and Karl-Anthony Towns returned recently after missing 51 games because of a right calf strain.
The time away for Towns, Minnesota’s leading scorer the previous four seasons, allowed for others to step up in bigger roles and develop.
Veteran wing Kyle Anderson, an addition in free agency, is averaging 12.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game in March while shooting 51.3% from the field.
He and Conley have become the offensive hubs that will distribute the ball to the likes of Towns, future superstar Anthony Edwards and Rudy Gobert, the NBA’s leader in field goal percentage three of the last four seasons.
“They’re just older,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said Tuesday of the differences he’s noticed with Conley on the team. “You don’t see any young boys on the floor anymore. Earlier in the year, they had two-way guys on the floor. Now they got vets that understand what to do in certain environments.
“You take the play away, they have guys with playoff experience that are tested that understand on both sides of the ball how they play. They want to get to the paint, they want to drive the ball, draw and kick the whole game. And when you have veterans out there, they understand that there’s a purpose behind it, and that’s what you’re seeing.”
Here is some of Anderson’s recent playmaking at work, and that includes the defensive end. He’s slow and can’t shoot (1.5 3PA/G) but do not underestimate his two-way ability because of that.
“He’s huge,” Williams said of Anderson in Minnesota’s system. “I got to work with him in San Antonio and his versatility on both ends is something that you have to respect.”
Anderson moves to the bench in place of Towns, the aspect of this to really keep an eye on because of how critical Anderson’s involvement is to their flow. But with him and emerging center Naz Reid coming off the bench, that’s some pop.
Reid, 23, went undrafted out of LSU in 2019, where he was a highly regarded, consensus five-star recruit coming out of high school at the time. The talent was never actualized there, but now four years into his NBA career, it has.
Among players with at least 30 games played that are playing under 20 minutes a game, Reid’s 22.5 points per 36 minutes are tied for the top mark in the NBA, per Stathead. Those 11.4 points in 18.3 minutes a night is some serious production, like the numbers we saw for JaVale McGee in Phoenix last year.
Reid has had some huge games this year, producing over 25 points on four different occasions, and has been in double figures for seven straight games to post 18.6 per appearance in that span.
Third-year wing Jaden McDaniels told The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski he compares Reid to a younger DeMarcus Cousins with the agility and skill at that size.
You can see it. Reid has arguably the best handle of any 5 in the league. It is not just straight line drives, which most NBA centers can’t do in a live setting anyway. Reid’s got some shake to get around the basket, where he’s shooting a strong 77% at this year, and a decent 42% in floater territory, per Cleaning the Glass.
Speaking of McDaniels, one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA that draws comparisons to Mikal Bridges, the same can be said for his growth. McDaniels’ points per game before the All-Star break sat at 11.4, and since then, he’s at 15.3 across 15 contests. He contributed 15-plus points only 11 times last year and is already up to 26 of those outings for this campaign.
McDaniels is on pace to nearly double his field goal attempts from the midrange compared to last year, and at 6-foot-10, he’s going to get a good look over most defenders that has resulted in a solid 44% knockdown rate, according to Cleaning the Glass. Minnesota likes to get him downhill off curls and he’s got a sweet signature spin move in his back pocket.
Even with the great timing for Minnesota, the question is if it has enough, well, time.
In a similar position to Phoenix and Durant, it has less than two weeks to get a feel for the fully fleshed out vision.
How do Anderson, McDaniels and Reid still all get good opportunities within the offense? What does crunch time look like? Can Edwards and Towns both have the ball enough to where one of them isn’t primarily utilized as a floor spacer?
The fascinating part of the dynamic is that the most stable part of the offense doesn’t involve either of the stars.
Conley comes to the north from Utah, where he developed exceptional chemistry with Gobert, a two-man game Williams mentioned.
In their last two seasons together before the Jazz traded Gobert, the duo outscored teams by 17.5 and 9.2 points per 100 possessions when they were on the floor together. That net rating this year in a smaller sample size of 5.6.
As The Dunker Spot’s Steve Jones highlights in this possession, getting more out of Gobert’s rolls is huge for the offense, and that’s all Conley as the replacement to D’Angelo Russell.
Unlocking Gobert as a roller just opens things up for Minnesota. This is the blend. Conley stays on that right side, helps comes in on the roll. Pocket pass and the skip goes to Anthony Edwards for 3. pic.twitter.com/8R1UCaHPfW
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) March 28, 2023
Minnesota is legit. With steady wing Taurean Prince as a reserve and even more potential offensive firepower from guard Jaylen Nowell, its deeper than envisioned and initially given credit for. Sure, there is the immovable elephant in the room sitting there of how the Towns and Gobert duo works in the postseason defensively, but this group will be capable of great basketball. Don’t be surprised if a playoff berth results in giving a team in the first round a problem, or even advancing.