In Tom Thibodeau’s first season in Minnesota, he fed Andrew Wiggins the ball late in close games. He was either trying to create a go-to scorer, or testing whether Wiggins could become that kind of player.
In Thibodeau’s second season in Minnesota, he had handed the ball to Jimmy Butler with the game in the balance, leading to sometimes-spectacular, sometimes-awkward endings.
Thibs’ approach — relying on a talented wing to create a shot — is not unusual in the NBA. With his roster, that approach ignored a key fact, and a key player: that Karl-Anthony Towns is the Timberwolves’ most talented and diverse offensive player and the player most likely to confound a defense.
Sunday afternoon, Thibodeau decided to run his fourth-quarter offense through Towns against a Golden State Warriors team that excels at pressuring and confusing players in the post. Towns responded by dominating the fourth quarter in the Timberwolves’ 109-103 victory at Target Center.
The game turned into a duel between Kevin Durant and Towns. Durant is one of the greatest scorers in league history. For a quarter, Towns outplayed him.
The score was 84-84 after three quarters. Tyus Jones opened the fourth with two quick buckets. Towns entered the game with the Wolves leading 88-87 and immediately hit a layup on a feed from Wiggins.
The Wolves led 96-92 with less than six minutes left when Towns made a three-pointer. He made a baby hook with 3:38 remaining, a 10-foot floater with 2:18 remaining, a 12-foot fallaway baseline jumper with 1:08 remaining and a putback with 37.5 seconds remaining.
“I feel comfortable with all of them because I work on my craft,’’ Towns said. “Those shots I take, those are not out of the wind. I practice those shots. Obviously, it was harder because of the situation, the defensive pressure, everything like that. But I have an amazing coaching staff here that we work night in and night out with those kinds of situations and pressure to make sure that if the ball is ever to find my hands in those situations I can make the shot.’’
For most of the basketball-playing population, finding a way to “get’’ your shot — to get open, to set your feet, release the ball without it being blocked or altered — is an art and a necessity. All those hours practicing jump shots in the driveway won’t matter if you can’t create space in a game.
There are a few players in the world who, by virtue of height, arm length, release point and athletic ability, are always open. Their challenge is judiciously choosing the timing and the method of their shots.
Durant and Towns are two such players. Their offenses ran through them in the fourth quarter, and Towns and the Timberwolves looked comfortable matching up with the NBA’s model franchise.
Towns made six of his 10 shots in the fourth quarter for 14 points, as Durant went 2-for-7 for nine. Towns finished with 31 points, 16 rebounds, two assists and a steal, braking the Wolves’ free-fall in the standings. He shot 13-for-24 from the field while Durant went 11-for-32 and produced 39 points.
Towns and Wiggins combined for 44 points and a plus-36 rating, leading to Towns summoning cheers at midcourt as time expired.
Towns sounded more appreciative than vindicated by the offense running through his large hands.
“Obviously, it’s humbling, that they respect the work I put into my craft,’’ Towns said.
“I’m blessed to catch the ball in that kind of situation and be able to capitalize.’’
Wiggins is a gifted athlete. Butler is a powerful tactician. Either can find a way to get a shot off even when 10 defensive eyes are staring at them.
But a player like Towns — which is a tiny demographic — is always open, as his variety of successful fourth-quarter shots demonstrated. When he touches the ball in the paint, defenses must make a difficult choice. Do they double-team and leave one of the Wolves’ other gifted scorers open, or let Towns make multiple moves near the basket?
The Wolves may not have merely won an important game on Sunday. They may also have found the right endgame strategy.