Minnesota’s sobering reality: Can KAT and the Wolves handle championship expectations?

Sports

WASHINGTON — KARL-ANTHONY Towns had an event to attend at the French Embassy last week, a screening of a documentary about the life of Minnesota Timberwolves teammate Rudy Gobert. He preplanned his look: an all-black ensemble complete with a signature bucket hat for the occasion.

“I’d already packed for the trip before the game!” Towns explained to his agent, who could only smile and shake her head, as he got ready in a hotel suite a couple of blocks from the White House.

In stark white lettering, the hat featured his nickname — “KAT” — and the number “60” on it. The Wolves made the hats nearly two years ago to commemorate Towns scoring a then-franchise-record 60 points against the San Antonio Spurs.

At 7 feet tall with nearly 1,000 made 3-pointers in his career, Towns has a combination of size and skill that makes him one of the most prized players in the modern game. But he also has a goofy streak — see his live streams playing video games — that can be either endearing or annoying depending on your perspective.

In 2021, he drew quite a reaction when he declared himself the “greatest big-man shooter of all time.” Two months later, he won the 3-point contest at All-Star Weekend in Cleveland, the first big man to do so. This can be seen as a shining example of backing up your words or an odd distinction for a player with a less-than-impressive playoff résumé.

When understanding the situation Towns and the Wolves are in now, it’s helpful to keep two facts in mind.

First, the franchise has advanced past the first round of the playoffs once in its 34-year history. That happened 21 seasons ago, the same spring LeBron James won the NBA Rookie of the Year award in 2004.

Second, the Timberwolves have had seven All-Stars total in team history — only three players have made more than one All-Star Game. Towns, who has also made two All-NBA teams, is one of them.

Towns is having an excellent season, with his scoring, rebounding and shooting all up from last season as he manages a vital role for the Timberwolves. He’s a big reason the team is in an exciting and mildly bewildering position.

The Timberwolves have been at the top of the Western Conference standings all season, thanks to a dominating defensive mindset and the combined star power from Towns, Gobert and Anthony Edwards. They also have the distinction, with their ability to use a huge lineup, of being one of the few teams that has been a thorn in the side of the defending champion Denver Nuggets.

But the Wolves are dealing with a sobering reality: A franchise that has never had real championship expectations is suddenly dealing with a new world of scrutiny and pressure. And Towns represents the epitome of a team trying to harness its talent and turn it into meaningful winning.

Take Monday night, for example. It was a mundane-looking game when the schedule was released last August, but now the Wolves’ visit to the Oklahoma City Thunder is for the top spot in the West. It comes after a 2-2 week brought Towns and his team an unexpected portion of drama.

Which is why the “KAT 60” hat was ironic. The night before, he put up a mesmerizing and record-smashing 44 points in the first half against the Charlotte Hornets in Minneapolis.

Already 7-for-7 on 3-pointers, Towns launched a near-30-footer for his eighth in a row as Hornets play-by-play announcer Eric Collins screamed “Noooooooooo!” as he watched it go through the net, an instant viral moment.

But less than two hours later, Wolves coach Chris Finch sat at a microphone in a quiet rage. Towns had topped his own franchise record, scoring 62 points, but there probably won’t be any “KAT 62” hats in production.

“It was an absolute disgusting performance of defense and immature basketball,” Finch said.

The Hornets, having entered the game with a 9-31 record, came back from 18 points down and outscored the Wolves 36-18 in the fourth quarter to pull a stunning upset. Towns, who had forced a few shots, was benched briefly in the fourth quarter. A night that looked like it was going to be historic had turned infamous.

“Oh, we got cussed out,” Edwards said.


THE WOLVES WERE 30-13 at that moment and are still on pace to have their best regular season in two decades. For some players, the success isn’t new — Gobert and Mike Conley experienced it with the top-seeded Utah Jazz just two seasons ago. For everyone else, it’s new ground.

But the novelty has dimmed. Finch, who has coached all over the basketball world, is very aware of it. He’d felt the team slipping over the previous few weeks — the defense-first mindset, the offensive focus — and it was already annoying him before he watched the team abandon its system in the collapse against Charlotte.

“I’ve said the same thing to the players [in the locker room], so saying it to the media wasn’t to me, in my mind, any more egregious or damaging to their mindset than it was saying directly to them,” Finch said two days after the loss to the Hornets.

“It’s just right that it ended that way,” Towns said. “Sometimes I can do all this amazing work and not end up getting the credit for it.”

Towns recalled a game during his second season in November 2016. At the time he considered New York Knicks center Kristaps Porzingis, who had finished second to him for Rookie of the Year, a major rival. Highly motivated for the matchup, Towns put up a spectacular 47 points with 18 rebounds and 3 blocks, going right at Porzingis the entire night at Target Center.

“People were saying Porzingis was better and I was like, man, I’m going to go shut all this s— up tonight,” Towns said.

Then Carmelo Anthony hit a game winner with two seconds left.

“And it’s always kind of gone that way for me,” Towns said, pointing out that when he scored 60 to set the season high for points, it had lasted just one day. Kyrie Irving had 60 points the next night for the Brooklyn Nets.

While Towns reminisced, the NBA released its Last Two-Minute Report from the games of the night before. It noted that two shooting fouls on Towns were missed in the game’s final five seconds alone. He should have gotten free throws (twice) for more points. The game could’ve gone to overtime, and the story could’ve been different.

“Yeah, but Joel [Embiid] had 70 [points] so it wouldn’t have mattered.”

Towns is probably right. Had it not been for Finch’s rant, Towns’ night likely would’ve been overshadowed by Embiid’s brilliance that evening. Instead, he generated memes for his bad fourth quarter — a fate worse than just being overshadowed.

If the Wolves are going to make something of this flame of excitement and avoid another false start, Towns is the transformational player who has to stitch things together.

This team has flourished on Finch’s strategy to play with a big lineup and Wolves president Tim Connelly’s aggressive moves. Since being hired in 2022, Connelly traded for Gobert and Conley, and it coincided with the rapid improvement of 2020 No. 1 overall pick Edwards, who could join the brief list of Wolves multiple-time All-Stars on Thursday when the 2024 reserves are announced.

This had the biggest effect on Towns. He has modified his game, moving from center to power forward and from No. 1 offensive option to No. 2 as Edwards has blossomed into the team’s top player. Asking a player in his prime to do that isn’t exactly simple.

“Getting KAT to understand he’s no longer the fulcrum of everyone else’s spacing — he’s got to actually space around other people — I think that was an adjustment for him,” Finch said. “KAT’s willingness to accommodate these changes has been probably step No. 1 in all of it for us.”


IF YOU WATCH the Wolves play, you will notice that Towns and Edwards frequently go into and out of timeouts talking to each other. They make sure to acknowledge each other on the court when they set each other up.

Edwards is one of the NBA’s most exciting players, but he is still raw at 22 years old. He’s almost as likely to shoot the Wolves out of a game as he is to win it for them. Against the Wizards last Wednesday, Edwards scored 15 of his 38 points in the fourth quarter to finish off a 118-107 victory. A night later in Brooklyn, Edwards missed his last 11 shots as Minnesota needed 10 points and seven rebounds in the fourth from Towns in a two-point win.

“I want to find ways to allow Ant to grow and to build his story and help him in his journey,” Towns said. “I never wanted to be a bad vet. I’ve been told how many stories about bad vets to rookies and to young players. And I always wanted to be one of the successful stories that brought the best out of the young guy or helped him reach the potential that he has or possibly surpass it. And I think I’ve done a great job of supporting Ant.”

Towns’ close relationship with Kevin Garnett, with whom he played with as a rookie in 2015-16 (Garnett’s final season), has given him the framework with which he wants to lead.

He has heard many stories about one of the biggest fails in Wolves history, the promising Garnett-Stephon Marbury duo that never launched when Marbury demanded a trade after less than three seasons.

“I’m not going to have that happen. I don’t have an ego for all that,” Towns said. “It’s not more about relinquishing the role but sharing it, being able to walk hand in hand and foot by foot with each other and in this journey of possibly doing something special. He’s the guard; he’s going to have the ball.”

Garnett’s guidance is brought up often by Towns. And with the Wolves on the verge of finally being sold by longtime owner Glen Taylor to Marc Lore and partners including Alex Rodriguez, that influence might be drawing closer.

Assuming the transaction is finalized, there is a chance Garnett will take a role with the organization, sources told ESPN. He has been in a bitter dispute with Taylor and distant from the franchise in recent years.

“The better we get playing together, the better we’re going to be offensively,” Edwards said. “We’re working hard on getting better at the two-man game. We’re trying.”

The issue? The two-man game isn’t always working. The Wolves have been the league’s top-ranked defense all season, with a huge part being Gobert’s rim protection that has him on pace for his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award.

But they rank 19th on offense. And in fourth quarters when things get tight, they rank 27th. In a four-game stretch last week that included the Charlotte loss, the Timberwolves combined for just 75 points in fourth quarters, the lowest fourth-quarter output over four games for any team this season. On Saturday night, they were up 10 points going into the fourth quarter in San Antonio when unusually poor defense and turnovers led to another brutal collapse and loss to a bad team. Towns missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would’ve won the game.

This is one of the reasons Finch is harping on maturity. While it’s good to see players cheering for their teammate when he’s chasing a scoring record, they can’t stop running the offense in the fourth quarter and lose focus on the game. Just like you can’t punch a teammate, as Gobert did, which got him suspended for a play-in tournament game last season, or punch a wall out of frustration, as key wing defender Jaden McDaniels did the same night, which sidelined him for the playoffs with a broken hand.

But for a team with scant success, it can’t be just about harping on the negative moments and worries. Towns represents that, as well. He’s enjoying the season and trying to have fun. He decided to wear the “KAT 60” bucket hat to the game against the Wizards, too.

Any concern about the long-term future — the Wolves are facing a financial conundrum for next season when new contracts for Edwards and McDaniels that could be worth nearly $400 million come on the books and Conley hits free agency, with the new owners’ willingness to spend uncertain — is being pushed off.

“The young guys I don’t think truly understand the business so they don’t think about it, and older guys are living in the moment,” Towns said.

Does that make Towns unrealistic and too optimistic, or is he just trying to present a front? It might come down to your personal opinion of Towns. But there’s no question he’s having a fabulous season and his willingness to yield to Edwards probably hasn’t gotten enough credit. Edwards is committed to working with him, and Gobert says he’s content with Towns, making it a priority to get him the ball to help reward his defense.

It’s hard to say whether all this will have a positive ending. But that’s certainly in the cards as any possibility counts for progress when it comes to the Wolves. As for Towns, it seems he’s trying to be earnest about it all.

“The winning helps. It’s good when you’re able to sacrifice to see the result you wanted and share the success,” Towns said. “We’re all making this happen. This is not just a singular effort. This is a team coming together and saying ‘We really want to do something special.'”

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