A different Karl-Anthony Towns makes all the difference for Timberwolves in Game 6

A funny thing started happening as this wild, crazy, rollicking Minnesota Timberwolves season built toward a playoff crescendo. Every time Karl-Anthony Towns would return to his home in the Minneapolis suburbs, he noticed enlarged pictures of his smiling face affixed to mailboxes in his neighborhood, including his own.

Timberwolves flags fly proudly at the homes around him, gestures of support from his neighbors like he has never seen before in his nine seasons in Minnesota. It doesn’t stop there. When he drives around town, he sees Timberwolves flags flapping on cars near Target Center, “Naz Reid” signs on houses and knows about the Anthony Edwards-inspired ornaments that randomly started popping up last summer throughout the city.

There have been a few instances of Wolves fever in these parts in the last couple of years, starting with the Jimmy Butler-led team that ended an interminable playoff drought in 2018 and the Patrick Beverley-helmed squad that won a Play-In Tournament thriller in 2022. But something feels different to Towns this time around. He has been through it all in Minnesota, through hirings and firings, trades to and from, injuries and heartache. He has seen plenty of seasons in which the fans were only too happy to arrive at the finish.

That’s what makes the euphoria surrounding this one feel so special to him. Just when the Timberwolves appeared to be on their way out the door in their second-round series against the Denver Nuggets, they summoned their most spirited, desperate effort of the season to blast the defending champions 115-70 on Thursday night to force a win-or-go-home Game 7 Sunday in Denver.

And Towns had his fingerprints all over it.

After years of putting up huge numbers and catching plenty of flak for the lack of winning to go with all those points and rebounds on his résumé, Towns has shifted his focus to become a more blue-collar teammate. The transformation was front and center in Game 6 against the Nuggets, who had beaten the Timberwolves three straight times to put them on the brink of elimination.

In his younger days, the 10 points and 4-of-10 shooting he put up used to constitute about a quarter of production for him. If he did that for a game, the Wolves assuredly were going to lose and he was going to walk off the court disenchanted.

On Thursday night, his stat line was cause for celebration because that modest scoring total was buttressed by 13 rebounds, five assists and only three fouls and one turnover. In the biggest game of the Wolves season, Towns did everything in his power to glue himself to MVP Nikola Jokić, who had shredded the Wolves in the previous three games, including a 40-point, 13-assist masterpiece in Game 5.

Foul trouble in that game in Denver forced the Wolves to deviate from their preferred defensive plan against Jokić — with Towns guarding him and Rudy Gobert helping off Aaron Gordon — and it burned them. Jokić went right at Gobert all night long and buried the Timberwolves, a demoralizing level of domination that left the league’s No. 1 defense in shambles.

There is only so much that can be done to slow Jokić, who has dominated the league for the last four seasons. But Towns’ wider base and lower center of gravity have proven to be more effective than Gobert’s long arms and anticipation in one-on-one settings. The Timberwolves did give Towns plenty of help in Game 6, doubling from the top often when Jokić would catch the ball. The Nuggets star scored 22 points on 9-of-19 shooting with nine rebounds and only two assists.

“You don’t ever think you can stop players like that,” Towns said. “But you just know that if you do your best to contain him, you give your team a great chance. I just wanted to go out there and do the best I could.”

The proud defense that had disappeared in the previous three games of the series was back with a vengeance in Game 6. Towns worked hard to fight through screens and not give in to easy switches that allowed Jokić to go against more advantageous matchups. The Wolves also tweaked their schemes, particularly on Jokić-Gordon pick-and-rolls, with Gobert sagging off of Gordon in the action so Towns had room to stick with Jokić.

Towns was 5 of 18 in the Game 4 loss on Mother’s Day and was in foul trouble and jittery for much of Game 5. With everything on the line in Game 6, he played his most composed game of the season.

In the shootaround Thursday morning, coaches and teammates emphasized the importance of Towns making the simple play on offense and not fouling on defense. He was too important to their chances, they told him. They needed him, and that’s all KAT has ever wanted to hear.

“I told him today, ‘We’re thankful that you didn’t foul because if you foul we lose,’ ” said Edwards, who had 27 points and three steals and was a team-best plus-43 in 34 minutes. “Because you are the best matchup we’ve got for Jokić. Like, you do the best job on him.”

After a 9-2 start by the Nuggets made it look like it was going to be another easy night for the Denver offense, the Wolves ripped off a 27-2 run to get Target Center roaring. That paved the way for a blowout. The Wolves would lead by as many as 50, outrebound Denver 62-43 and hand the Nuggets the worst playoff loss by a defending champion in NBA history.

“We talked a lot today just about getting our edge back, our swagger, playing a little more free and easy,” Wolves coach Chris Finch said. “It just felt like we hadn’t had our best effort on both sides of the ball yet in this series.”

The Nuggets shot a putrid 30 percent for the game and were 7 of 36 (19.4 percent) from 3-point range. Jamal Murray was 4 of 18, Michael Porter Jr. missed 5 of 6 3s and Denver’s three main bench players — Christian Braun, Justin Holiday and Reggie Jackson — totaled two points on 1-of-17 shooting.

The Wolves cannot rely on the Nuggets to be that bad from the field in Game 7. Then again, Towns and Naz Reid combined to shoot 0 of 8 from 3-point range, so Minnesota has room for improvement as well.

Even though he didn’t score much on offense, Towns still made an impact. His under-control passing proved pivotal in getting the ball moving and creating open looks for his teammates. Towns did it with passes directly to the scorer.

He also made passes that led to assists.

It is not flashy work. It is just the right play, over and over again. When Towns cuts out the fouling and the turnovers, which often come from him trying to make the highlight-reel shot or pass, he puts so much more stress on the defense. It starts to bend, opening up driving lanes for Edwards and wide-open looks for Jaden McDaniels, who picked a heck of a time to break out of his series-long shooting slump. He was 2 of 13 from 3 entering the game but went 3 of 5 from there on Thursday.

McDaniels also made plays off the bounce, taking advantage of the Nuggets’ strategy of putting their worst defenders on him and daring him to beat them. They did the same thing in Game 5, and McDaniels managed just nine points, which allowed the Nuggets to load up with aggressive double-teams on Edwards. But in Game 6, McDaniels was 8 of 10 from the field and scored 21 points.

“Not wanting to go home was a big factor for me today,” McDaniels said. “I was going to do whatever I could to help my team.”

That desperation permeated the Timberwolves in Game 6. They started the series with two wins in Denver, looking every bit like a championship contender with a ferocious defense and timely offense. But a three-day break between Games 2 and 3 seemed to wake up the Nuggets, and Jokić smashed Minnesota’s defense with his bare hands.

Point guard Mike Conley missed Game 5 with soreness in his Achilles and his calf, another primary factor in the Nuggets swarming Edwards. With their future hanging in the balance, Conley gutted it out in Game 6, scoring 13 points, hitting three 3s and dishing out five assists in 31 minutes. The 36-year-old couldn’t walk on Tuesday but received enough treatment to give it a go two days later. There was no more time for resting, not with the champs ready to take them down.

Conley’s return allowed Edwards to get off the ball a little bit more, which made it harder for the Nuggets to double him as aggressively as they did in Game 5.

“You got guys saying this is all we got. We’ve got to put everything out there,” Conley said. “Show all our cards and make it good enough. I think guys believed in ourselves.”

That’s been the mark of this team all season long. People look at “Wolves” on their chests and assume the worst is always right around the corner. But this team has shown a toughness and a resiliency that very few of the previous iterations have displayed. They were left for dead after an awful performance in Game 5 after Jokić toyed with them in the second half.

In Game 6, the Wolves sent a message. They’re still here.

Towns limped out of Ball Arena after Game 5 thanks to a collision with his surgically repaired knee. Like Conley, he gutted through it. There is no time left to lose, no more rest to take. He looked at the whiteboard in the team’s locker room, where they keep a tally of how many games they need to win to capture the organization’s first championship.

“It was not fun. We had a sense of desperation and attitude the rest of the game,” Towns said. “We know there was no more room for error. I say it’s fun to come out with a win, but we have an attitude that we’ve been pissed off that we haven’t been able to change that number from 10 to 9 in a long time.”

Before they can win nine, they have to win one. The second Game 7 in Timberwolves history comes on Sunday, the 20th anniversary of the first. The Nuggets will be favored at home, and rightfully so. They are the defending champions. Jokić and Murray are 3-1 in their career in Game 7s, while many of the Wolves will be playing in one for the first time.

The old Wolves would have gone quietly on Thursday night, bowing to the greatness of Jokić and giving in after squandering a 2-0 series lead. There was nothing quiet about Game 6 in Minnesota. They responded with toughness like they have all season long.

For at least one more game, the flags will keep flying.

(Photo of Karl-Anthony Towns: David Sherman / NBAE via Getty Images)

Source link: A different Karl-Anthony Towns makes all the difference for Timberwolves in Game 6