5 Big Thoughts on the Wolves Big Win

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

How many Western Conference teams can say that they have more wins against the Utah Jazz than they do against the Oklahoma City Thunder or Houston Rockets? It would not seem there are many others. Somehow the Wolves are 2–0 in Utah this season, a place where only two other teams have beaten them in the 20–21 NBA season. The season continues to “stay weird” for the Wolves, but the fans will not complain about a fun game that saw the Wolves lock down on defense for 3 quarters after a terrible start to come out on top. Here are 5 big thoughts on a big win:

What is it about playing the Jazz that makes the Wolves play well? Seriously, how are the Minnesota Timberwolves the only team to win multiple times in Utah this season? The first Wolves win in Utah came in the 2nd game of the season and can be chalked up to early season “weirdness” with the Jazz machine not being fully operational, but I think there is something to the Wolves style of play on both sides of the ball matching up relatively well with Utah. The heart of the Jazz defense is their center, Rudy Gobert. With a superstar offensive center like Towns who is a perimeter assassin, the Jazz have to make a choice. Bring Gobert all the way out to guard Towns on the perimeter and leave the rim unattended, or guard Towns with a smaller defender and allow him to get post touches with an advantage. Last night the Jazz mostly chose to guard Towns with Bojan Bogdanovic who is a solid but not spectacular defender and is no match for KAT. They would bring Gobert to double-team Towns to some success, but for the most part the Wolves were able to rotate the ball around for efficient baskets. It is clear that a superstar perimeter big man gives the Jazz a conundrum. Defensively for the Wolves, the Jazz would seem to be a terrible matchup. Utah thrives off of a drive & kick offense to generate open 3’s, and uses the enormous Gobert as a lob threat inside. That style typically adds up to a big night for a Wolves opponent, but with the Jazz lacking their star, Donovan Mitchell, to collapse the defense the Wolves were able to lock down defensively after the 1st quarter. Minnesota was not afraid of the dribble penetration by the other Jazz perimeter players without Mitchell, and that helped them stay “home” on the Jazz shooters. This is a worry I have about the Jazz in the playoffs. Outside of Mitchell, who is going to collapse a defense off the dribble besides Mike Conley? It will be an interesting problem for them to solve. Regardless of these apparent matchup advantages for the Wolves, Utah is still the better team, so a Wolves win was unexpected and welcomed.

This may have been the best all around game from Anthony Edwards. That is saying a lot considering he had a 42 point game in a win at Phoenix, but his stat stuffing tonight contributed to the win in a big way. Ant finished with 23 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, and 5(!) steals after a slow start to the game. Along with the stat stuffing, he looked better than ever cutting off dribble penetration and contesting 3 point attempts on from the Jazz. It should be noted, he certainly was not perfect defensively as he still tends to get lost when defending off the ball, but this game was step in the right direction. Offensively we saw a very patient and mature Edwards. He was letting the game come to him and only had 3 points on 2 shots until late in the 1st half. Jim Peterson even noted on the broadcast how quiet of a night it had been for Edwards, but seemingly right on queue he took over with a couple of impressive attacks to the rim for layups and some trips to the free throw line. The quick burst helped the Wolves pull within 6 before halftime, and suddenly the team had life. Coming out of halftime, Edwards started off right away with a lightning quick drive to the hoop to lay it up before Gobert could recover to contest, then he hit a 3 soon after. From there it was “game on” all thanks to the 19 year old. The rest of the way Ant seemed to get his points within the flow of the offense, and his budding two-man game with Towns continued to impress and put tremendous pressure on the Jazz defense. Finally, Ant’s anticipation in the passing lanes on defense was really fun to watch. He has developed a reputation as a bit of a gambler on defense to his team’s detriment, but against the Jazz he was in the right spots to snatch the ball and start fast breaks for his team. If Ant can walk the line between gambling for steals and being more conservative on D, he will turn into a nice defensive playmaker for the Wolves. Big time game from a big time rookie.

DLo and the bench unit is becoming a fun group to watch. Over the past few games the Wolves 2nd unit has gained some chemistry and swagger. With Russell continuing to come off the bench he is able to spend more minutes with Naz Reid, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Juancho Hernangomez. While they tend to sputter on offense, the size and length of that group defensively is giving opponents fits. When DLo has his scoring punch going right, he can singlehandedly spearhead the offense while the others play solid defense and crash the boards like mad men. Minnesota seems to have specifically found something with the front court tandem of Naz Reid and Jarred Vanderbilt. Maybe the duo needs their own nickname… Thunder & Lightning? Smash & Dash? I don’t know, someone will come up with one. The pair of big men complement each other so well off the bench. Against bigger lineups, Vando is the powerful forward that can guard opposing big men and bigger wings. When the opposing bench unit is smaller like the Jazz used, JV can be deployed as a versatile defender against any other type of player. He turned out to be the primary defender for noted jitterbug Jordan Clarkson late in the game, and the 6’8″ Vanderbilt smothered him and forced tough shots. That is a valuable weapon to have off the bench. If DLo continues to get a large chunk of his minutes with the 2nd unit, they could become a formidable group both offensively and defensively.

So…. Karl-Anthony Towns is the power forward we have been looking for all along. One of the most popular running theories among Wolves fans, bloggers, and journalists right now is that the Wolves may be best suited to acquire a rim protector or defensive-minded big man to play alongside KAT next season. The premise is that Towns can effectively guard opposing big men AND power forwards. Well the Jazz game earned another notch in the belt for those who believe in “Towns the power forward.” Two specific situations stick out as proof that Towns can adequately defend on the perimeter if needed . One was late in the 3rd quarter when he switched out to defend Bojan Bogdanovic on the perimeter. Bojan is a bigger wing and is a good ball handler. KAT was able to force his drive the his non-dominant hand and cause him to throw an errant pass to the corner that was intercepted. KAT’s quickness at his size surprised Bogdanovic and rendered his drive ineffective. Later in the game KAT switched on to point guard Mike Conley at the top of the key. Smelling a mismatch, Conley backed up and attacked KAT who was able to stay just close enough to force Conley to pass the ball on his drive. This is not to say that KAT is a 1–5 defender who can switch everywhere, but if bigger wings or forwards are trying to isolate on him, I will take that as a win for the Wolves defense most of the time. With that development, the options for the Wolves open up greatly. KAT and Naz Reid have already shown to be an effective pairing, and if they can widen their talent search this offseason to comb a potentially depressed center market they may unlock this team’s true potential. I look forward to watching KAT and another big man help to shore up the Wolves defense in the future.

We’ve said it before, winning games like this matters more than ping pong balls. Similar to the recent wins over the Knicks and Heat, this win over the Jazz means something for a young Wolves squad. This was not a pretty game. Minnesota barely climbed over 100 points, but finding other ways to win is the hallmark of a good team. Mind you, the Wolves are not yet a good team, but they are starting to prove they could be. They shot 43% from the field, 23% from the 3pt. line, and 60% from the free throw line. This year’s Wolves team loses games when they shoot that poorly. They just haven’t had enough talent or strategy to overcome poor shooting, but against the Jazz they made it work. After a ghastly 1st quarter, the defense overwhelmed the Jazz. Active hands from Edwards, Okogie, and McDaniels flustered the Jazz into turnovers. McLaughlin and DLo each contributed 2 steals as well en route to forcing 20 Jazz turnovers. The Wolves truly won this game on the margins instead of just trying to outscore the opponent (like they did against Sacramento). Down the stretch, there may be Wolves fans hoping for a late game collapse to help the Jazz eek out a victory and preserve lottery odds for Minnesota. I just cannot get on board with that. These are the types of games that they need to win. Keep reinforcing these habits to the young players. When Ant plays his best overall game in a win, it shows him that the team will be rewarded when he plays the right way. The Basketball Gods also reward stuff like this. Hopefully this game serves as a reminder of how this team can build it the right way.

– Jerry W

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