The past two games have shown a resolve from the Minnesota Timberwolves’ young stars that hasn’t been seen before in this setting. What should we make of it?
There is a common train of thought throughout sports, and specifically basketball, considering the fewer number of players competing on the playing surface, that an injury to a star player can sometimes be a blessing in disguise for the teams that have to endure the loss. It’s not so much that the loss of the star player brings more wins or success to the team, but more so allows the other players on the squad to blossom and realize what they are quite capable of when forced into roles that stretch their responsibilities.
This particular situation draws parallels to learning how to ride a bike. For example, this process is simplified with training wheels as the bicycle is guided by the extra balance supplied by the excess support. The process is taken one step further when being conducted by another person who is helping steer you and not allowing the bike to fall over to either side.
But once you reach the point where there is no assistance in your challenge of steering that two-wheeled device, it is entirely up to you to memorize that feeling of balance and recreate it all by yourself.
This is what we are currently seeing with the Timberwolves young stars without their superb set of training wheels in Jimmy Butler. The last two games have revealed how a team led by Karl-Anthony Towns, with Andrew Wiggins as his beta (more on this in a minute), can still be more than enough to give opponents fits on the court.
The panic stage
The week stretching from March 1 until March 8 was a rather bumpy one for Minnesota Timberwolves supporters.
Jimmy Butler was still injured and the Wolves began the most daunting stretch of their schedule with three consecutive raunchy losses that involved blown leads, player ejections and dirty hits to certain former fan favorites.
To compound matters, the team’s defense continued to be unjustifiably repulsive (currently sits at 24th in the NBA with a rating of 108.5), anger over continued lackadaisical play from one Andrew Wiggins was given fuel, and there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel as the league’s elite loomed ahead on the schedule. Also, every team Minnesota was battling with for a Western Conference playoff spot seemingly couldn’t lose a game, with the top-four seeds at one point winning a collective 42 straight contests (!) to drop the Wolves in the standings.
The cherry on top was the addition of Derrick Rose, who might be the only player in the entire league who brings a more polarizing reputation than the aforementioned Andrew Wiggins. It was a puzzling, yet simultaneously predictable move from President of Basketball Operations and head coach Tom Thibodeau as Rose is yet another disciple of the coach’s teachings and trusted confidant in his former-Bulls fraternity.
To put it in short: the Wolves were without their best player, with their next two stars having not yet proven to be capable of leading a winning team by themselves, in ghastly need of shooting and defensive improvements, with perhaps the most difficult eight-game stretch of their season coming up, and their solution was to sign a non-shooting, non-defending, perhaps washed up player (with personality and off-court issues) who played the position the team already had the most quality depth at.
Needless to say, Timberwolves fans’ households were not a particularly happy place to be in over this stretch of time.
Turning of the tides
Fast-forward to this past Sunday as the Timberwolves took on the vaunted Golden State Warriors in a matinee showdown on national television. The Wolves finally caught a break however as former MVP and shooting savant Steph Curry was forced to miss the game with an ankle injury. The Warriors were also missing key reserves Andre Iguodala, David West and Jordan Bell, giving the Wolves a fighting chance to swing momentum back in their favor.
It was in this game that the Wolves young stars began to look like they were finding their balance without the training wheels. Karl-Anthony Towns, who all season has been relegated to a spectating role in the final frame (he sports a 20.9 percent fourth quarter usage rate, which is extremely low given his offensive skills), showed out to the tune of 31 points, 16 rebounds, two assists and a block and single-handedly dragged the team to victory with a stretch of unrelenting offensive brilliance against one of the games best defenders in Draymond Green.
Maybe even more encouraging was the appearance of engaged-Andrew Wiggins – something that is desperately needed if the Wolves are to pull through this difficult stretch above water. Wiggins had 23 points, five assists and three rebounds and played effort-filled and completely focused defense on the dangerous Klay Thompson, holding one of the NBA’s best sharpshooters to 8-of- 22 from the field as part of an impressive team effort.
Neatly put, it was an incredibly satisfying and much needed win for both the slumping team and anxiety-ridden fan base who were on the verge of a full-blown panic attack.
This win was a springboard to the following contest against another quality opponent in the Washington Wizards, which Minnesota won 116-111. In this game, although the Wolves season-long warts were very apparent at many points throughout, the young guns proved capable once again. Towns masterfully put up an enormous stat line of 37 points, 10 rebounds and three assists and provided clutch play after clutch play to lead his team to victory for the second straight game.
Wiggins overcame an annoyingly quiet first three quarters to dominate in the final frame while flashing the gifts that make him so amazing, yet frustrating, and creating a whirlwind on social media about his play.
Remember the nonexistent light at the end of the tunnel that was mentioned earlier? Well, although we aren’t quite all the way to it yet, it is very much in sight after the last two games.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are beginning to gain confidence that they have the ability to lead this team to victory without their leader in Jimmy Butler. Nemanja Bjelica is quickly turning into a cult hero with his unique style of play and implementation into the starting lineup.
One small step in the wrong direction was the recent breaking news of Andrew Wiggins discontent with playing third-fiddle to KAT and Butler. But taking a step back and looking at it logically, Wiggins has been promoted as a franchise centerpiece and was given free reign in his first three seasons to dominate the ball and lead an offense before a trade was made for a player who played a both the same position and with a similar style, who took away touches and notoriety from him. It is fairly easy to see how this could create some frustration.
But, I would be wildly surprised if this story didn’t become an afterthought in the coming weeks as the team battles for playoff seeding and hopefully ends the 14-year playoff drought. There is too much on the line and Wiggins is too soft-spoken of a person for the tension to become palpable at this juncture.
For now let’s just enjoy the positives. It’s not the time to worry about lockerroom drama or off-court issues. Let’s just have fun watching a team whose next 13 games are essentially bonus playoff contests with how tight the Western Conference currently is.
Root against the competition at all costs, pull for the Wolves to win games, and enjoy the progress the Wolves young stars are making when it is needed most. Because this is perhaps the most thrilling time to be a Timberwolves fan since Kevin Garnett sported the evergreen-tree uniform trim.