For much of the season, the Timberwolves have been one of the worst teams in the NBA, if not the worst.
But when they line up against Utah — the team with the NBA’s best record — Minnesota morphs into some type of unstoppable force.
Three games, three impressive performances, three victories.
Minnesota completed the unfathomable season sweep of Utah via a 105-104 victory Monday at Target Center. It did so by looking nothing like the team that has lost so many games this season via a lack of shot making and defensive effort.
D’Angelo Russell scored the game-winning layup with four seconds to play after a defensive miscommunication by Utah left the point guard wide open for a layup on an inbounds play.
Utah left Russell — an all-star guard in his own right — alone by the free-throw line as it sent two defenders out to guard Karl-Anthony Towns near center court.
“I told D-Lo, I said, ‘How good does that feel that you’re on a team with someone who draws as much attention as you, or even more?’ ” Towns said. “I think it just opened up because I made a purposeful, a very purposeful attempt to get open. I wanted to get the ball. … I think D-Lo was more surprised than anybody. When he caught it, he looked around and he said, there’s no one to help. Then he almost traveled and missed the layup. I was like, ‘Oh no.’ But a good way to win.”
The layup was a response to a Mike Conley triple with six ticks to play that put Utah in front.
The Jazz’s last gasp didn’t even end in a shot, as Jaden McDaniels suffocated Conley on a side out of bounds play.
“I think we deserved to win today,” Towns said. “You’ve heard me say before, even in wins, we didn’t deserve to win. We deserved this one.”
The Timberwolves spent their last two games flying around the floor and making Utah earn everything. Doing so Saturday was a nice effort. It was refreshing for Minnesota to play as though it cared and knock off the Jazz. But doing so for a second straight game showed something different. It showed that Minnesota is capable of stringing together one good effort with another.
“It would’ve been a tough one to swallow if we lost this one,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “Thankfully, we gutted it out, found a way to come back. It was a carbon copy of the other day, but proud of our effort.”
The back to back victories mark Minnesota’s first such stretch since it won its first two games of the season against Detroit and, yes, Utah (44-17).
Optimism for this team right now likely is as high as it has been since way back then. Sure, the Jazz were without their star guard, Donovan Mitchell, but no one was exactly feeling sorry for Minnesota (18-44) when it was without Towns, Russell, Malik Beasley or even Ricky Rubio at various stretches of the season.
Only now are the Timberwolves finally close to whole again. They’ve vowed on countless occasions to treat this final stretch as a building block for the future. Only now do they appear to be taking that approach seriously.
“We’re building. It gives us something to build on,” Russell said. “We’ve got all the excuses in the world to say why we’re not where we’re supposed to be. But we get a glimpse of it and just a taste of us winning here and there. Us executing down the stretch is something to build on. Just taking those small positives out of each game, especially when we win.”
They out-toughed Utah. After another tough first quarter Monday, which left the Wolves down 33-17, Russell went nuclear in the second frame, going 5 for 7 from the field for 15 points to put Minnesota up two at the break.
Russell finished with 27 points and 12 assists. Towns also had a double-double with his 21 points and 11 rebounds. But the Wolves again won the game on the defensive end.
Utah went just 37 for 95 from the field, including an abysmal 16 for 57 from deep. It can be easy to scan a box score and say, “Oh, the Jazz simply missed shots.” But the Wolves deserve the credit for that. Minnesota sped Utah up, making the Jazz look less than comfortable all night on offense.
It did so on Saturday, and again Monday.
“We wish we had an opportunity to be playing in the play-in. We missed out on the bubble last year, and now we’re missing out on the postseason games this year, as well. So just giving us something to build off,” Russell said. “I think our preparation has been great. We’ve got a lot of young players that are coming into their own, as well. It’s just clicking. I can’t put a nail on what it is. We’re trying to play the right way defensively and offensively. The process is right. I think that’s why our results are us at least having a chance to win at the end of the game.”