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Why Minnesota Timberwolves have become a true NBA title contender

Minnesota Timberwolves
Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Whether they enter the locker room with a sizable lead or deficit, the Minnesota Timberwolves display an identity that partly explains their dominance.

Instead of scrolling through their phones at their locker stalls, players converse with each other. Instead of listening to the coaches with a limited attention span, players engage with the staff regarding both their message and adjustments.

“We’re doing a good job with being focused,” Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “We come in and listen to Coach and hear the game plan and what we messed up at. I think we do a good job in the third quarter after seeing it with adjusting and doing a better job of not committing the same sins. That’s a testament to us in this locker room with just listening.”

It’s also a testament to both Minnesota’s resiliency and maturity.

The Timberwolves have tried to show they are more than just a young and exciting team worthy of highlight reels. The Timberwolves (38-16) have the top record in the Western Conference for more substantial reasons. They have two All-Stars (Anthony Edwards, Towns), two elite defenders (Rudy Gobert, Jaden McDaniels) and a steady veteran point guard (Mike Conley) blending their experiences and skillsets as one cohesive unit.

“It’s pretty crazy to think we’re first in the West,” Gobert said. “But we still haven’t tapped into what we can really tap in. We’re a much better team than we were a few months ago.”

In fairness, Minnesota was also a much better team a few months ago compared to last season. Then, the Timberwolves labored through five games in a first-round series loss to the Denver Nuggets. The Timberwolves struggled with absorbing the depth they gave up to acquire Gobert in an off-season trade. They also struggled with integrating Gobert with the rest of the group. Once the 2023-24 season started, though, Minnesota showed it simply just needed time together to foster team chemistry.

The Timberwolves rank first in the NBA for most wins against teams with above. 500 records (25), including signature victories against Boston, Denver, New Orleans, New York, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Clippers (twice). Though it ranks only 21st in points per game (113.6), Minnesota at least shown efficiency with a second-best 3-point shooting percentage (39.3%). The Timberwolves exert even more of their dominance on defense, an area Minnesota ranks in points allowed (107) and opposing field-goal percentage (44.8%).

Through all of this, the Timberwolves can always count on a resurgent second half with a more effective top-ranked defense in points allowed (51.7) and defensive field-goal percentage (43.8%). Minnesota coasted to a 20-point win over the resurgent Clippers this week after opening the third quarter with an 8-0 run.

“Guys have a great awareness with what works and hasn’t worked in the first half, and what we have to do better,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “Our guys are focused coming out. It’s been a part of our identity.”

How the Minnesota Timberwolves have transformed their identity

Minnesota Timberwolves
Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

That Timberwolves’ identity traces to some of its individual parts.

Edwards has made his second consecutive All-Star game after leading the team in points (25.5) and steals per game (1.18). With adding an average of 5.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists per contest, Edwards remains on pace to become the first Minnesota player in franchise history to average at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists. The Timberwolves have also lauded Edward for his improved chemistry with Towns, which has entailed increasing his vocal leadership, maintaining his aggressiveness and improving his playmaking.

“I don’t know why teams put two [defenders] on me. KAT is the best offensive player that we got,” Edward said. “If you put two on me, KAT is going to have a field night. I’m all for it.”

That’s because Towns inevitably will produce with less defensive pressure. He made his fourth All-Star game after averaging 22.7 points while shooting 52.2% from the field and a career-high 44.3% from deep. Towns, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard are the only NBA players this season to average at least 20 points while shooting at least 50% overall and 40% from deep.

“You have to be versatile, especially in today’s game of basketball,” Towns said. “You have to be willing to do a lot more than people before us had to do. So for me, it’s about being as versatile as I can for my teammates and in position where I can drive, shoot and finish with both hands left and right. And on the post, do the same thing. It allows me to maximize the opportunities I have on the court.”

That wasn’t always the case, with Towns and Gobert initially struggling to complement each other while also covering up their own deficiencies. This season? Different story.

Though Gobert missed an All-Star nod, the Timberwolves largely credit his presence for revitalizing the team’s defense. Gobert ranks second in rebounds per game (12.5), and currently leads the NBA for most games with at least 15 boards (16). He ranks eighth in blocks per contest (2.1), and has record at least four blocks in 10 different games. Meanwhile, McDaniels has become one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders, a development that prompted Edwards to tout both Gobert and McDaniels as NBA All-Defensive First Team candidates.

“We just focus on us. We don’t focus on the noise,” Gobert said. “We stay consistent to who we are and what we do and don’t get bored.”

That’s partly because the Timberwolves have an experienced floor general that keeps the team accountable through his disciplined work ethic, dependable play and positive reinforcement. After Minnesota acquired Conley as part of a three-team trade prior to last year’s trade deadline, Conley admittedly harbored uncertainty on whether he would have a significant role beyond just managing the locker room. In his 18th NBA season, however, the 36-year-old Conley has averaged 10.6 points while shooting efficiently from the field (44.6%) and from 3-point range (44.6%) along with 6.5 assists per game.

“Probably not a lot of people expected the Timberwolves to be in this conversation and have the kind of year that we’re having,” Conley said. “For me to come over in a trade and have a significant role, it’s truthfully a blessing to be able to compete at this level and at this age.”

Minnesota will soon find out whether it will be blessed with making its deepest playoff push since appearing in the 2004 Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. As the Timberwolves have experienced both on the court and in the locker room at halftime, they have the talent, depth and teamwork to make the necessary adjustments.  

“We have a lot of room to grow and a lot of room to get better,” Conley said. “That is exciting for us heading into the last stretch of the season.”

Mark Medina is an NBA insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on XInstagramFacebook and Threads.

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