Basketball

The dichotomy of a revival: Wolves thrill fans with unexpected success, frustrate them in loss to Grizzlies


The seconds ticked on the Timberwolves’ season, and Anthony Edwards stood on the Memphis Grizzlies’ side of the court with his hands on his knees. In the biggest game of his young career, Edwards had thrown everything he had at those Grizzlies, putting up 30 points, five rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks in 41 minutes.

The numbers were terrific, tantalizing indicators of where Edwards could eventually go. But the dejection on his face was justified, with five straight missed shots in the final six minutes contributing to yet another Timberwolves collapse down the stretch. That is when Ja Morant, the Grizzlies’ dazzling and cutthroat point guard, came up and put an arm around Edwards to console him. Morant is two years older than Edwards and has one more year of NBA experience under his belt. He has been in Edwards’ shoes, when all the highlights in the world won’t cover up the disappointment of a loss.

The Timberwolves went out in fitting fashion Friday night, at times looking like the best team on the floor, one that could create matchup problems all over the place and was too much for even the team with the second-best record in the NBA to handle. At other times, they could make dumbfounding mistakes, silly turnovers and head-scratching shot selection, the tell-tale signs of a team not yet ready for the playoff pressure cooker. It all culminated in a 114-106 loss to Memphis in Game 6 of their Western Conference playoff series, a defeat that sent the Grizzlies to the conference semifinals to face the Golden State Warriors.

The Wolves led by double digits in three of their four losses in the series. They gave up a 26-point lead in Game 3, a 13-point lead in Game 5 and a 10-point lead to start the fourth quarter in Game 6. The issues were the same every time: defensive rebounding and offensive stagnation. One game after the Grizzlies grabbed 17 rebounds in the fourth quarter to beat the Timberwolves, they hauled in 16, including six on the offensive glass, in a 40-22 quarter.

“Every loss, we’ve had a chance,” coach Chris Finch said. “But you are what you repeatedly do. And if we’re not able to close a game, these high-leverage games, then we need to work on that, and we need to be better at that.”

The Wolves shot nearly 48 percent from the field and 47.6 percent from 3-point range in the first three quarters, but then shot just 37 percent from the field, 20 percent from 3 and allowed the Grizzlies to turn four turnovers into nine points and give away another lead. Edwards was 2-for-7, Karl-Anthony Towns was 1-for-5 and D’Angelo Russell played less than three minutes in the fourth quarter of an elimination game after committing two turnovers early in the period that ignited the Grizzlies’ comeback. It was the basketball version of “Groundhog Day,” living the same outcome on different days over and over again.

Jaden McDaniels, the Timberwolves’ other promising second-year player, had the game of his life, hitting 5 of 6 3-pointers and scoring 24 points with four rebounds. He missed one shot all night, played solid defense and started to show the two-way capabilities that were starting to come to the surface before he was injured. And with so much on the line, the 20-year-old Edwards meant business from the start, going 6-for-7 for 16 points, three assists, two rebounds and a blocked shot early.

But Russell finished 3-for-7 with seven points and four turnovers, Towns was 1-for-5 in the fourth, Malik Beasley was 1-for-4 with two rebounds and Patrick Beverley scored 10 points on 3-for-8 shooting and was a minus-16 in 37 minutes before he fouled out.

Russell, in particular, struggled to such a degree in Game 6 that Finch ultimately pulled him for Jordan McLaughlin in the fourth quarter. It was like that all series for Russell, who scored 22 points in Game 3 but never more than 12 in any of the other five games. He is eligible for a contract extension this offseason, but given the massive struggles he had in the final six weeks of the season, it remains a question about how far the Wolves are willing to go to keep him.

“D-Lo had a great season for us, and he had a hard time settling into this series,” Finch said.

That dichotomy was omnipresent in this series. On the good side, the Wolves quickly rendered one of the most potent starting lineups in the league to be completely useless because Towns was able to have his way with Steven Adams to the point where he was unplayable. They also contained Morant and made him work for everything he got, including the 17 points on 4-for-14 shooting with five turnovers in Game 6.

The Wolves also got outrebounded, 56-37, and were bludgeoned by six offensive boards in the fourth quarter, one of which led to a 3 from Tyus Jones that put the Grizzlies up, 106-102, with 1:09 left. It was a gut punch from the Wolves fans who grew up cheering for Jones at Apple Valley High School, while also holding their noses to do the same while he was at Duke. Jones missed a similar shot in the fourth quarter of Game 4 but had no hesitation when the ball found him Friday.

It was the perfect example of experience meaning more than age. The Grizzlies’ starting lineup had an average age of 23.2 years. The Timberwolves are considered a young team, as well (starting group age average of 25.6), but Memphis was in the playoffs last year against Utah. The Timberwolves were just now figuring out how much different life can be in the postseason.

“I think that comes with experience,” Edwards said. “They were there last year, and they were the same way, having a lead, letting game slip away; we just not as experienced as them.”

There was a lot of big-picture reflecting after the game. The Timberwolves won 23 more games than a season ago, beat the Clippers in the Play-In Tournament to get back to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons and restored Target Center as a fun, energetic environment with soldout crowds that loved and supported a team that played hard and together, if not always smart.

But fans also were tearing their hair out as the Wolves gave back big lead after big lead in this series. They led for significantly more minutes in the series but were outscored by 62 points in the five fourth quarters.

“I hope we are a bit angry and a bit disappointed,” Finch said. “I hope that fuels us. That alone should be a positive thing. That’s what being a competitor is all about.”

The home crowd grew restless in the late third quarter and early fourth, booing as Russell turned the ball over or when Towns or Edwards took ultra-contested stepback shots. It went the same way in Game 3 and Game 5 and was indicative of a crowd that suddenly had something for the Timberwolves that has so rarely been applied over the years: standards. Each win in the regular season ramped up the enthusiasm and the expectations.

Now it is up to the Timberwolves to make sure they learn from their mistakes and channel their disappointment in a positive direction, much like the Grizzlies did after losing to the Utah Jazz, 4-1, in last year’s playoffs. Memphis made a leap from Morant’s second year in the league to his third, and now Edwards would love to see his teammates join him.

“It depends what we do in the summer, man,” Edwards said. “Everybody got to go and get their individual work in and be dedicated to the game and to the grind and we come back. We’ll see where that takes us.”

As crestfallen as the Wolves fans were in Friday’s fourth quarter, they eventually gathered themselves and looked at the bigger picture. For so many years, this team has been an embarrassment, losing games by the bucketful and turning Target Center into a ghost town with the lack of fan engagement. But this version of the Wolves was fun, brash and capable of winning games like this — and winning them often. And as the clock ticked and reality set in, the fans gave their Wolves a standing ovation.

“It was incredible,” Edwards said of his first playoff run. “I can’t describe it, I’m definitely sad it’s over, but I’m ready to get back here next year.”

The Timberwolves believe the Grizzlies were ripe to be beaten. And they walked off the court in Game 6 gritting their teeth at the opportunity missed, but also smiling about the season that restored some of their luster.

Towns lingered extra long on the logo, saying a prayer of thanks for his teammates, coaches and fans, and to his mother, Jackie, who died from COVID-19 two years ago. As he walked off the court to a raucous cheer, he placed both hands together to say thank you for all of their support.

“Just very appreciative of how far I’ve come and the guys I have in this locker room,” Towns said. “It’s an honor to play with them and chill with them and have this moment with them. These guys did a lot for me. Coaching staff, teammates, this city, the fans, and obviously disappointed that we didn’t bring them the win and give them a chance to see a Game 7 and have a chance to move on to the next round, but just extremely honored to be in this position, to be wearing this jersey, to represent this city and this state.”

(Top photo of Ja Morant and Anthony Edwards: Brad Rempel / USA Today)





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