One of the problems that plagued the Timberwolves most of the last season was their stagnant late-game offense. Too often, the Wolves relied on isolation basketball with Anthony Edwards in those situations, and their numbers in clutch time reflected that.
Their offensive rating in clutch time, which the NBA defines as a game that is within five points and has five or fewer minutes remaining, was 25th in the league (103.9 points per 100 possessions).
A big reason for the Wolves' 15-4 record this season is how they have flipped those numbers. Now, clutch time offense is becoming a strength of the team; the Wolves are seventh in offensive efficiency in clutch time this season (121.5) and have a 7-1 record in those games.
There's an obvious reason for this turnaround: point guard Mike Conley.
"He's the head of the snake," forward Troy Brown Jr. said. "A poised point guard, does a great job with executing and making sure we're all in the right spots."
Since coming in after the trade deadline last season, Conley has taken it as his job to organize the Wolves during those situations, to get them into sets that can direct the ball to Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns in advantageous positions rather than relying on them to create on their own.
"I try to make it easier on everybody else, so they don't have to think as much," Conley said. "I can do all the thinking and just put you in the right spot. It's about us repping those certain plays that we've done a million times and trusting each other in those moments."
Conley wasn't quite able to put his stamp on late-game offense at the end of last year. Players can't easily develop the chemistry and trust needed to execute at a high level. Last season's experiences, combined with training camp, informed how the Wolves were going to operate this season.
"That's kind of my job when I got here was to figure out how we can blend our first three quarters with our fourth quarter and late-game situations," Conley said. "Now that I know the guys and know where people like the ball, actions that we're good at late game, you start to have progressions with plays, we can run a couple plays back to back and have different reads from them."
Coach Chris Finch often looks to Conley to get the ball and get the Wolves going, especially if the ball starts to stick.
"I give him a lot of freedom," Finch said.
Finch mentioned the Wolves vary their structure in how they close games now where previously they had the same way of doing things. Conley added that the Wolves have tried to structure their late-game offense to how the rest of the night has gone, and that's not something teams can easily do.
"Some teams, the identities change every night — you don't who's gonna be the guy, or some guys want to be the guy every night and it takes away from opportunities that your team could win because you've still got to be able to read the game," Conley said. "If you get double-teamed, can you make the right read? Can you trust a teammate to make the right play?"
There have been times Edwards, who could return from a two-game absence Wednesday, has had to cede the ball in close games, and it has worked out. In a road win at Golden State, Edwards drove in to the lane and met a crowd. Instead of forcing a shot, he made the pass to the corner to Conley, who iced the game with an open three.
There have also been times where Towns has been the go-to guy, like when Edwards fouled out during a game at New Orleans, and the Wolves got him in position for a game-winning drive to the hoop. Or when Towns ignited their comeback at Charlotte with an open three off a set. Then there's Conley himself, who took the reins at Charlotte to drive and hit a runner for a three-point play that iced the game.
The Wolves late-game offense has more dimensions than it did a season ago, and that versatility is a big part of why they have the best record in the Western Conference.
"Coaches, can they trust the players to do the right thing?" Conley said. "So it's trickle-down effect from top to bottom. Luckily right now we have just a good connectivity going from our coaching staff to our players."