Just when the Timberwolves threatened to lose another game they can’t possibly afford, All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns delivered not only a 17-point fourth quarter but a needed franchise-record 56 points in Wednesday’s 126-114 home victory over Atlanta.
When it was over, Towns joined eight other players — including Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Anthony Davis — in NBA history who reached at least 55 points and 15 rebounds in a game.
He did so by making 19 of 32 shots from the field, six of eight three-pointers and 12 of 15 free-throw attempts on a night when he beat Mo Williams’ club scoring record by four points.
Those 32 shot attempts were his career high, too, and nobody seemed more surprised about it than Towns himself.
“Like I told everyone in here, I’m not used to shooting that many shots,” Towns said in his team’s locker room afterward. “That’s just not something I do. At any point of my career, I’ve never been a volume shooter. If the occasion needs it, I can be. But that’s not something I’m comfortable doing, night in and night out.”
The question, of course: Why not?
Before Wednesday’s game, Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer called Towns a player “unique” for his size because he has the skill to score anywhere on the court. Four hours later, he called Towns “impressive, no doubt” after the 7-footer scored 21 points — six threes and three made free throws after he was fouled taking another — from distance.
Wolves veteran point guard Jeff Teague called it a performance the likes of which he has never seen from a teammate. He compared it to the 60 points Golden State’s Klay Thompson scored in 29 minutes against Teague’s Indiana team last season.
In his one season at Kentucky, Towns was the best player on one of the best college teams ever assembled, but he ranked fourth in field-goals attempted. In his third NBA season with the Wolves, Towns is third behind Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler in shots taken from the field with an average of 14.1 a game.
Towns has attempted seven shots in a game five times this season and six shots twice (the second time when he was ejected just before halftime). Coach Tom Thibodeau often has called those games aberrations and insists “the games” and the opposing defense dictate who gets what shots.
Thibodeau has bristled more than once when asked this season about the distribution of shots, a process Towns calls getting a piece of “the sugar.”
On Monday, Towns scored 15 points in 39 minutes when physical Memphis veteran Marc Gasol outplayed him. It was a mismatch about which Towns brooded for two days before he dominated a cast of Atlanta defenders — Dewayne Dedmon, Mike Muscala, Tyler Cavanaugh — who couldn’t match either Towns’ size or speed.
After Wednesday’s game, Thibodeau called Towns’ play both “unbelievable” and “tremendous” and praised him because he ran the floor hard and established position deep near the basket. That helps prevent two (or three) defenders from converging on him effectively, and it starts in motion better ball movement that on Wednesday resulted in the ball ending up back in Towns’ hands after the defense collapsed.
It also resulted in 33 assists by the Wolves.
Regarding the 32 shots Towns attempted, Thibodeau said: “They’re wide open. I thought he made good decisions, too. When [it] was open, he shot them. When there were double teams, he kicked it out. When he gets it going, I want him to be aggressive. I thought he was.”
Towns said Wednesday he doesn’t consider himself foremost a scorer because of all the other things he can do and wants to do.
“I try to be as versatile as possible,” he said. “Pass the ball around, get everyone involved and then just try to take the points that are given to me, if the situation requires it. The ball movement was excellent, and I found myself sometimes in a position to score. My teammates would be more upset if I passed it up than shot it, so I’m just trying to make the right play.”
Towns called the franchise scoring record — he surpassed Williams, Kevin Love, Corey Brewer, the only Wolves to reach 50 points in a game — “cool,” but he lamented the 114 points his team allowed. He said he is more concerned about ending the team’s 14-year playoff “drought” than being the guy who shoots, and scores, like he did Wednesday.
He was asked if he foresees himself growing into the kind of volume scorer he proved himself to be against the Hawks.
“I would lie to you if I said yes,” Towns said. “That’s not who I am. I just kind of take what the game gives me. If the game gives me 32, like tonight, I have to take that. If the game gives me five, I have to take that. It depends how the game goes. That’s just the way you try to find wins.”