It was a throwback sort of night at Target Center on Wednesday.
Tom Thibodeau was back prowling a sideline. The Wolves' three best players all played at least 35 minutes in what pretty much amounted to an eight-man rotation. And the Wolves grinded out a 102-101 victory in which the end result smoothed out a lot of the process that went into it.
But no, this wasn't a throwback to the 2017-18 season, when Thibodeau's Wolves won 47 games and made the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Thibs coaches the Knicks now. Chris Finch, who might have a few Thibodeau-esque tendencies — I mean that in a good way, since it's in the context of wanting to win and holding players on the court accountable in that pursuit — was the one doling out 40 minutes to Karl-Anthony Towns in the pursuit of a winnable game. And the tense win amounted to just the Wolves' 12th against 36 defeats, a .250 winning percentage that still amounts to the worst in the NBA.
I talked about some of these things and more at the outset of Thursday's Daily Delivery podcast.
If you don't see the podcast player, click here to listen.
If you can find significance in a victory for a team that only does so once every four tries — and lord knows I've had a lot of practice in the last decade-plus — to me it came in two connected thoughts:
*The two other players aside from Towns who played those heavy minutes were Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, a pair of one-and-done rookies who have shown promise in the midst of growing pains this year.
Edwards has gained in efficiency recently, with his 24 points (half of them in a closing comeback stretch) coming on just 16 field goals attempts and nine makes. He added three blocks, three steals and three assists for a well-rounded game, with the last of those assists setting up Malik Beasley for the go-ahead three in the final minute.
McDaniels, just as importantly, continued to show that he is a defensive unicorn of sorts. And his ascent, though not as heralded, has to be considered even more of a surprise than Edwards' progress, considering he was the No. 28 pick and not No. 1 overall.
That he has gone from likely G-League project at the beginning of the season to a player so indispensable that Finch couldn't even take him off the court for more than 12 minutes — and that McDaniels chipped in an efficient 18 points, five rebounds and three assists while battling the bigger and stronger Julius Randle — is perhaps the most intriguing and maybe even most important story of this Wolves season.
"What he's doing at the defensive end of the floor right now is special. ... It's as special as what we're seeing 'Ant' can do on offense. It's as special as anything you've seen," Finch said after the game. "I can't remember a 19-year-old defender [McDaniels is 20], rookie, coming in having this type of impact, battling the multitude of positions and making a great impact for his team and his teammates."
In the 11 games he has played since the All-Star break — six of them starts — McDaniels is overall a plus-15 (meaning the Wolves have outscored opponents by 15 points when he was on the court). Without him on the court, the Wolves have been outscored by 37 points in those 11 games. That's a 52-point swing, about five points per game.
And obviously it's not all McDaniels, but it also should be noted that in the last four games — in which McDaniels has played at least 33 minutes in all after typically seeing more limited action — the Wolves have a defensive rating that is No. 16 in the NBA. That's not great, but even decent is a far cry from their overall season mark of No. 27.
*All that brings me to a second point: That they had one of their better defensive showings of the season against Thibodeau's Knicks should carry some organizational weight even if Karl-Anthony Towns is the only holdover from the Thibs era who played Wednesday.
He was hired before the 2016-17 season with a reputation as a defensive coach. And in fact he has had good defenses everywhere he has been — except Minnesota. Three of his five Bulls teams were ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in defensive rating, and this year's Knicks are No. 4. His Wolves teams in his two full seasons were never better than No. 25.
If the Wolves are ever going to start winning games on a consistent basis, they will need to be able to get at least some defensive stops. When the rest of your core is built around Towns, Edwards, Beasley and the soon-to-return D'Angelo Russell, those stops will be hard to come by — making McDaniels and what he represents even more valuable.
The ultimate irony is that Thibs would love coaching McDaniels — but if he was coaching McDaniels, the young rookie would likely be glued to the bench this season instead of learning (and largely thriving) on the fly.
And if Wednesday was a collision of short-term results vs. long-term results, both of them seemed to go the Wolves' way for a night.