John Shipley: Built around Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves have been terrible without him

11January 2021

When he arrived from Houston two seasons ago, Gersson Rosas promised to build the Timberwolves around center Karl-Anthony Towns, and 10 games into his second season, it appears he has done a pretty good job. The problem, of course, is that without KAT, the Wolves have been terrible.

That’s why Sunday’s 96-88 victory over the San Antonio Spurs was such a pleasant surprise. With Towns resting his injured left wrist, the Timberwolves overcame a nine-point, fourth-quarter deficit to win the second of back-to-backs with the Spurs, 96-88 at Target Center.

“The fact that it was without Karl does make a difference,” coach Ryan Saunders said. “It gives the guys confidence.”

The Spurs were without their best player, too. DeMar DeRozan, who scored a game-high 38 points in Saturday’s 125-122 overtime victory over Minnesota, sat out Sunday for personal reasons. They missed him.

“DeMar DeRozan didn’t play. It was up to their guys to step up and make plays,” Minnesota point guard D’Angelo Russell said.

Broadly speaking, they didn’t. And the Timberwolves, without their Big KAT, did.

It’s encouraging. It has to be. Before Sunday, Minnesota was 2-1 with Towns in the lineup and 0-6 without him, but only because losses aren’t graded on a curve. In those six losses, the Wolves were outscored by an average of 20 points, and in their last seven they gave up an average of 126.8 points a game.

So, 88 looks pretty good, even without DeRozan. I’m not sure the modern NBA has room for a team that relies on defense, but with this group it’s not a terrible idea. The Timberwolves have a team full of guys who can move their feet and jump into a lane, and maybe two guys who can consistently hit from 3-point range.

And one is their injured center. The other is Michael Beasley, who was a combined 10 for 17 on 3-pointers and averaged 26.5 points in the two weekend games.

Players rarely shoot well all at the same time, let alone consistently. But players who are committed can play good defense every night. Josh Okogie, who returned from injury Sunday, didn’t fill up the stat sheet — six points, four rebounds — but he made a big difference by being active on the defensive end.

“We’re this good when we lock in,” said Naz Reid, who got the lion’s share of playing time in Towns’ absence and combined for 27 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks in the two games. “We’ve seen it before. We know what we can do; we just have to get it done.”

Is that a winning formula? It’s going to be tough. Minnesota has a tendency to work hard for leads only to see them evaporate quickly against teams that can shoot better. And let’s face it, the way teams collapse defensively, it’s nearly impossible to guard 3-point shooters.

It’s much more common to see a player drive into the lane and throw the ball back out to one of three guys standing just beyond the arc than to see him try finishing a drive against three collapsing defenders. I don’t envy NBA coaches. In the age of lawyer ball, it’s literally impossible to play solid defense.

The Timberwolves probably aren’t going to win a ton of games without Towns in the lineup. Sunday marked one win against a team without its best player, and at the end of the day the Timberwolves (3-7) were last in the Western Conference — a place they’ve been too comfortable occupying.

Rosas will be the first to tell you there is a lot of work left. In the meantime, the 2020-21 Timberwolves have most of a season to play, and their fans have one to watch or ignore.

“We had guys (tonight) that were sick and tired of losing,” Saunders said.

That’s a good place to start.

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