The chaos and euphoria of Tuesday night’s victory over the Golden State Warriors had finally given way to calm and quiet as Karl-Anthony Towns walked out of the Minnesota Timberwolves locker room and headed toward the team bus. His father was waiting for him, sitting on a foldout chair and wearing a big smile.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Karl Towns said, beaming after watching his son go for 33 points, 11 rebounds and make clutch shots down the stretch to hold off a ragtag group of Warriors who had tried to use an early-game fight as motivation to pull an upset.
The start of the season had been unkind to KAT. The team’s best shooter and the former 3-point champion couldn’t hit a thing in the first six games. Towns was shooting 38 percent from the field, including 23.5 percent from 3, numbers that simply did not compute for one of the most efficient offensive players in the game. But the Warriors game was his fourth quality shooting night in a row, and the elder Towns could feel the dam breaking right in front of him.
“Watch out now,” he said, shaking his head. “He’s rolling now.”
He is rolling now, and his latest performance was his best yet to deliver a victory the Timberwolves had no business getting. Towns scored 29 points on 10-for-11 shooting with nine assists, zero turnovers, six rebounds and the game-winning shot in Minnesota’s come-from-behind, 121-120 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday night.
Over his last six games, Towns is shooting 59.4 percent from the field and 48 percent from 3. The Wolves (9-3) are 5-1 in those games and are in first place in the Western Conference this late into the season for the first time since 2003-04, when Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell took the Wolves to the Western Conference finals.
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“You play the whole game to hopefully have an opportunity to be in that situation,” Towns told reporters in New Orleans after the game. “I looked at it as the (most fun) part of the night. This game’s supposed to be fun, and I had a lot of fun in that situation.”
The Wolves were finding little enjoyment through the first 40 minutes of the game, their third straight mediocre performance. The Pelicans were playing the second night of a back-to-back while the Wolves had two days of rest. New Orleans was also without Zion Williamson (rest) and CJ McCollum (collapsed lung), and yet scored 35 points and shot 63 percent in the first quarter against Minnesota’s top-ranked defense. It led 108-94 with eight minutes to play before the Wolves finally dug their heels in and mounted a charge.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker got things started with a huge 5-point flurry, converting a layup off a steal and then hitting a pull-up 3 in transition. He finished with 10 points and three assists against his former team and has quietly been big for the Wolves’ sluggish second unit of late.
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On a night when Anthony Edwards was limited to 30 minutes because of foul trouble and the normally steady Mike Conley was just 2-for-8 from the field, Towns was almost flawless, and not just on offense. Twice in the fourth quarter, Towns got great contests to force misses on jumpers from Pelicans star Brandon Ingram, who was lights out through the first three quarters.
Towns scored 12 points in the fourth, hitting all three of his field goals and all five of his foul shots. Even though he was on a massive heater, Towns turned down an open look from the top of the 3-point arc to shovel a pass to Edwards on the wing. He buried that triple to pull the Wolves within one at 117-116 with 1:54 to play.
Less than 30 seconds later, KAT drilled a deep 3 to give the Wolves the lead.
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“He’s unguardable when he’s in his bag,” said Jaden McDaniels, who scored 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting and got a hand in Ingram’s face on the final possession to help force a miss that preserved the win. “Shooting one leg, one arm, one shot. He can do anything you ask of him. When KAT’s hot, we can go far.”
Rudy Gobert had 17 points, 11 rebounds and two steals, and Edwards scored 10 of his 23 points in the fourth before fouling out late in the quarter. The Timberwolves went 4-1 on the trip and return home for games against the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and Sacramento Kings starting Monday.
Though they have won eight of their last nine and are delighting fans with the fast start, the Wolves have a lot to clean up. After holding four of their first five opponents under 100 points, they have given up at least 110 in four of their last five games, including 133 to the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night. The severely short-handed Warriors had much more success offensively than they should have Tuesday night. The Pelicans got whatever they wanted for three quarters and still shot 55.6 percent in the fourth quarter, so the defense needs a tuneup.
Shake Milton had another rough game Saturday, going 2-for-6 and missing a couple of wide-open 3s. After hitting almost 38 percent of his 3s last season in Philadelphia, Milton is under 28 percent from deep for the Wolves, who were looking for him to give them scoring off the bench. Coach Chris Finch kept Milton in the game at the start of the fourth quarter as a show of confidence, but he missed all three of his shots in 3:23 before the coach sat him down.
Opponent offensive rebounding has been a huge issue, as well. The Pelicans grabbed 13 offensive boards and turned them into 20 second-chance points.
The good news is, aside from the wipeout in Phoenix on the second night of a back-to-back, the Wolves have been winning games while working through their issues. Finch has said there is still “a lot of meat on the bone” for the team to clean up, and now it has a three-game homestand to try to address some of those trouble spots.
Now that Towns has found his groove on offense, it makes the Wolves so much more difficult to handle. His name has been in trade rumors for months, partly because the Wolves will have an enormous tax bill next season if they keep him and partly because there is a segment of the fans and national media analysts who believe Towns has to go so Minnesota can fully hand the reins of the team to Edwards.
Nights like Saturday in New Orleans, when Towns overwhelmed the helpless Pelicans, should prompt those folks to pump the brakes. Edwards is, unquestionably, a star. His physical skill and taste for the jugular have already been on display early this season, and teammates rave about the 22-year-old’s leadership and ability to take coaching and constructive criticism.
But when Towns is hitting shots like he is now and defending like he has been for most of the season, the ceiling on this team is raised. Having Towns and Gobert in the frontcourt is what makes these Wolves such a tough matchup for the defending champs in Denver, the measuring stick for the Western Conference. They badly need his shooting, and the playmaking with Gobert is turning into a real problem for opponents.
If anyone needed a reminder about how gifted Towns is as an offensive player, just watch how he tore the Pelicans apart in the fourth quarter, how he didn’t let early foul trouble derail him and how, when Edwards was on the bench and the Wolves needed a bucket, Towns cooked Dyson Daniels and gave the Wolves a win they never would have pulled off last season.
“Tonight, I thought, was one of the best games I’ve watched him play,” Gobert said. “He’s a very smart player, obviously, a very unique player. When he does that, he’s an incredible weapon for us.”
(Photo of Karl-Anthony Towns taking the game-winning shot: Stephen Lew / USA Today)