How Karl-Anthony Towns ‘rebuilt’ himself as the Timberwolves found their swagger

Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves have their sights set on a return to the playoffs.

MINNEAPOLIS – Surely, Patrick Beverley would be the guy to put this all into proper, pesky perspective.

The scene at Target Center was as raucous last Friday as it was rare, with the Timberwolves having just crushed Dallas 116-95 in a payback game from four nights earlier. Fans stood cheering at the start and stood again cheering at the end, an NBA market revived.

There were smiles in the arena, and fun and hope. The Wolves were 12-4 since the All-Star break, on the heels of Denver for sixth place in the Western Conference and, at 43-32, assured of finishing a season above .500 for only the second time in 17 years.

Sure, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell were cornerstone players in the franchise’s … hmm, forget resurgence, resuscitation is more like it. But Beverley, new to the roster this season, was accustomed to (seven playoff appearances in nine seasons) better. And he demanded it. He was around to see from the other side of Minnesota’s struggles and dysfunction.

So yeah, his view of what’s been happening figured to carry weight.

A lone reporter waited in a hallway outside the home locker room. A half-hour passed. Finally, a staffer emerged, delivering a message from the chattering, animated, defense-first guard for why Beverley was snubbing the interview request:

“Oh, so now everybody wants to talk about the Timberwolves,” he said.

It was an extremely Pat Bev moment, the massive chip he’s carried on his shoulder through his scrappy NBA career still firmly in place.

Which is exactly what this team still needs.

Anthony Edwards: ‘We’re the team nobody wants to see’ in the playoffs.

Before D’Angelo Russell got to Minnesota in February 2020, he had been an opponent, visiting Target Center since 2015 the way one might drop by a candy store.

“It was a place where you felt like you had a playground,” the 6-foot-4 point guard said. “There was not a lot of energy in here.

“As a scorer, I could come in and have a great night. As a passer, I felt like I could get any pass through. As a competitor, I felt like we were gonna win.”

A few weeks after Russell’s arrival in the trade with Golden State, COVID-19 shut down even the dreary atmosphere at the Wolves. When play resumed, fans weren’t there at all. As the restrictions came off, they were only slightly more noticeable.

Now? It’s a budding snake pit-slash-fun house, the sort of place playoff contenders cultivate, then count on to boost them through a series.

“Now I feel like we’ve got some swag here,” Russell said after a morning shootaround. “The coach has got some swag. A-Rod and them [incoming owners Alex Rodriguez and Marc Lore] got some swag from the top. Players have swag. I think that swag has just brought a liking back to the team. Winning makes it even better, like the cherry on top.”

So first comes the swag, then comes the winning?

Said Russell: “When you’re rebuilding, swag is like the first impression. We knew last year and the year before that, people got fired here, people got traded, a lot of people got changes of scenery. We finally got our group together and knew what we were going to look like, as far as our identity – KAT [Towns][, myself, Ant [Anthony Edwards], nice pieces around it, nice coaching staff around it.

“Now we’re up to the trends outside of us. We’ve got some guys who can dress. We’ve got some who are completely special in their own ways, like KAT, who’s a total hybrid on the court – you don’t know how to really prepare for him. You’ve got myself, who tries to bring the funkiness to the game. It’s just a nice mesh for the group.”

Towns chimed in days later by phone, as the Wolves’ bus pulled away from practice in Toronto. “Our mentality is different,” the All-Star big man said above a clamor. “These guys are willing to sacrifice. The chemistry – you can hear the background noise, guys are consistently laughing and joking and talking.”

It’s long overdue. The franchise has made just one postseason appearance since 2004, and it took until Game 82 to fend off Denver in the spring of 2018. The Wolves got eliminated in five games by Houston, an experience tainted even more by the mess that followed that fall: Jimmy Butler — coach Tom Thibodeau’s prize for that playoff chase — spinning out of control and essentially forcing a trade out to Philadelphia.

Now fans at Target Center stand until the Wolves’ first basket, a rah-rah college quirk suggested by Russell. In games Lore attends these days, he theatrically takes his shoes off near the end of victories – a new-era Red Auerbach cigar – in tribute to Towns’ routine when sitting out the final seconds. Home attendance is up to 21st in the NBA, after ranking 29, 29, 29, 21, 28 and, er, incomplete in Towns’ first seven seasons.

Minnesota was 27-13 in calendar 2022 until suffering its current skid in which it has dropped four of five, three on the road. The Wolves have a chance to stop it at Denver on Friday (9 ET, League Pass), with Towns and reigning Kia MVP Nikola Jokic battling in the teams’ biggest showdown since that 2017-18 finale.

The Timberwolves and Nuggets met in a de facto Play-In game back in 2018, and the OT thriller did not disappoint.

It is the Wolves’ latest game of significance, of which there have been too few for more than a decade.

“I don’t feel the moments [are] too big,” Towns said. “I’ve been around enough where I’ve seen our team on a little winning streak and you’d have thought we won the Super Bowl. There are peaks and valleys to a season. … We’ve got to have that mentality that every game is a must-win. We’ve got very few games left, regular season, and we’ve got to figure it out.”

You might not call the Timberwolves a coaching graveyard, but for many of the men who have held the top job there, there has been a backdrop of soft organ music, hushed comments and the sweet scent of floral arrangements.

This is a franchise that, at 1,046-1,579 across its 33 seasons, has won fewer games than San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich (1,341) has amassed in 26. Minnesota’s all-time winning percentage (.398) not only is the worst among all active NBA teams, it’s worse than the worst of the NFL (Tampa Bay, .402) and MLB (Marlins, .461).

And at 59-59 since taking over, Chris Finch is one of two Wolves coach with a record of .500 or better, joining the late Flip Saunders (427-392, .521). A “C” grade is honor roll stuff here.

Still, there are only 30 such jobs. So when a guy has dedicated his life to coaching and done so on both sides of the pond – from the Sheffield Sharks in England and teams in Germany and Belgium, to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the G League and assistant gigs in Houston, Denver, New Orleans and Toronto – you grab it and sort things out later.

Finch’s first impression when he was hired in the midst of last season?

“I thought there was high-level talent in here with D’Angelo and KAT,” the 52-year-old bench boss said in his office. “There was young talent in Anthony and Jaden McDaniels. Those were the guys I could see from the outside. And then getting here, Naz Reid, Jaylen Nowell, Jordan McLaughlin, these guys I’ve been blown away by.

“I didn’t come in with the mindset of ‘we don’t have this’ or ‘we don’t have that, so we’re not going to be very competitive.’ I went in thinking, ‘we have a lot of talent here, how can we extract more out of them?’”

Wolves coach Chris Finch has a 59-59 record with the franchise so far.

Sharing his systems offensively and defensively came first, followed by his expectations of personal accountability. But getting them to care at the necessary level?

“I tell guys, ‘I want to win and I want to help you get paid,’” Finch said. “That’s what this is about.”

The players liked Finch’s energy when he replaced Ryan Saunders, Flip’s son, 14 months ago. And at 7-24, after a 19-45 season before it, they were desperate for a lifeline.

The only speed bump was how he was hired, coming in from outside the organization with a season in progress. Certain voices claimed that passing over Saunders’ associate head coach David Vanterpool showed racial insensitivity. Social media users and even other NBA head coaches called out Minnesota president Gersson Rosas and owner Glen Taylor. (Indiana’s Rick Carlisle, head of the NBA coaches association, later apologized to Finch, assuring him the criticism wasn’t directed at him).

However people feel now about the move – Vanterpool is on Steve Nash’s staff in Brooklyn – there’s a strong belief in the Twin Cities that without those 41 remaining games last season, what they see now isn’t happening. Finch and the players had a chance to get their hardest work done early.

“It allowed us to steal a couple of games [this season],” guard McLaughlin said. “We were able to pick up things on the fly. It’s kind of like how the Phoenix Suns were in the [2020 Orlando] bubble, where they had those [eight victories] to platform them into the next year.”

“Immensely helpful,” Finch called it. “I was able to have working knowledge on what we had individually and collectively, then have the summer to go away, then come back with more of a well-formed plan.

“I didn’t have to feel my way through training camp with things that might be true but turned out not to be. That was able to play out last year.”

He lights up the room and captivates arenas. Behind the intriguing personality and dynamic game of Anthony Edwards.

Minnesota lost its first five games with Finch and 18 of the first 25. But as he laid a foundation for what the Wolves are now, they finished 9-7 over the final month. Rosas is gone now, fired before this season for issues not related to the hire, but Taylor, 80, is savoring it all with his wife Becky from their usual seats next to the home team’s bench. The heat he took is off.

“All credit to Glen, to the front office here, to everybody, to have the perspective to look a season-and-a-half down the road,” Finch said. “For taking a chance on me and then for taking the grief that they took. I’m happy we’ve been able to pay some dividends and start to turn this thing in the right direction.”

Towns literally and figuratively has been the centerpiece of this Timberwolves rebirth. He is averaging 24.4 points and 9.8 rebounds while shooting 52.9% overall and 40.8% on 3s. He went to his third All-Star Game after a two-year absence, won the 3-point contest while he was in Cleveland, and figures to get a lot of votes for an All-NBA Third Team slot.

None of those achievements compare to what Towns dealt with off the court.

I’ve been through the worst, from a career aspect and a personal aspect. Life has stripped me down to the bare bones, and I’ve rebuilt myself.”

— Karl-Anthony Towns

The virus that shut down the globe seemed to have been unleashed as something personal against Towns’ family. His mother Jacqueline died of COVID-19, as did seven other family members, and Towns himself was hospitalized with it. Recently, he spoke to about his final moments with his mother, saying he “watched her life fade away in my hands, literally in my hands, with a hazmat suit on. I couldn’t fix it.”

The way back has been public and slow. Basketball provided no real refuge from the pain and the losses, but it does get the best that Towns can give almost every night. He is 26, possessing a marvelous bundle of skills during the prime of his career. There’s been a sense of maturity forced on him and an appreciation for the game and his life beyond anything he’d known until the past two years.

“I’ve grown,” Towns told “The game is very slow to me. I feel like I still haven’t exposed all my game. There’s much more to be explored and utilized. It will come with building a rapport with my coach and my teammates, expanding my game more and more.

“As a person … we could be talking about that for a couple hours. I have a lot of life experience. Things you have to go through. And I’ve been through the worst, from a career aspect and a personal aspect. Life has stripped me down to the bare bones, and I’ve rebuilt myself.”

When Towns dropped 60 points in San Antonio on March 14, his coaches and teammates were elated for him while his own thoughts drifted to his mother and family. He scored 40 in Houston back in January and has 13 other games of 30 points or more. When he scores at least 27, the Wolves are 15-6.

Karl-Anthony Towns scores a franchise-high 60 points with 17 rebounds in a road win over the Spurs.

When Towns appeared at a multi-racial charter school last week to celebrate a fresh gymnasium floor in a rough north Minneapolis neighborhood, he engaged with the kids more fully and longer than you might expect from an NBA star whose time gets sliced and diced.

He is said to have found solace in his girlfriend, Jordyn Woods, and has credited her with helping to make his job fun again. The results the Wolves are getting fuels that, too, and stems from it.

“His personality’s back,” Finch said. “He’s had a great summer of individual work. He needed to go away and be in his own basketball lab, and kind of enjoy playing again. We told him, ‘That’s all we need you to do.’

“He doesn’t feel he has to prove he’s the best player on the floor every time down. He’s helped us win in a lot of ways – with rebounds, with triple-doubles, with a 60-point game, with big blocks down the stretch, with a big shot when he hadn’t touched the ball much in the fourth quarter. That takes a peace of mind and composure that he probably hadn’t had.”

Phoenix coach Monty Williams talked of Towns’ improving efficiency, a natural improvement if the man is paying attention to how opponents defend him. “He’s not rushing anymore,” Williams said. “And he finds his spot. You know he’s going to beat the top and trail or on one of the two blocks. Whereas early in his career he was probably all over the place trying to figure it out.”

Russell is particularly close to Towns, a fellow draftee from the Class of 2015 and the reason Minnesota brought the guard to town. He said he can’t imagine Towns giving more to their team than he already is.

“At the end of the day, you can’t control the dysfunction that surrounds you,” Russell said. “He doesn’t have to do more now. He doesn’t have to say more. Be the best you.

“A guy like myself watches him come in and put that work in at 8 o’clock on an off day, it just inspires. If a guy like Ant sees KAT and myself doing it, it’s just contagious. There’s a trickle-down effect.”

Russell has been stuck in a shooting slump lately, a dropoff since the All-Star break. Edwards is a coiled spring of talent, mostly in need of consistency and know-how. The rest of the rotation players know their roles, with Jarred Vanderbilt especially helpful to Towns as an alternate defender of bigs. Recent injuries to Malik Beasley (ankle) and Jaden McDaniels (leg) have shown what’s missing in recent games.

Then there’s Beverley, the “bad cop” from a buddy flick who complements Towns’ “good cop” in their joint leadership. This isn’t Butler, an aspiring superstar when he passed through on his notorious 69-game flame-out of a stay. Now a six-time All-Star, the Miami wing mixed badly with Towns and Andrew Wiggins, unimpressed by their toughness and work ethic.

Ornery interviewee or not, Beverley is a defender, a lit match and an irritant, depending on where he’s yapping.

“Hated him,” Russell said, recalling Beverley as foe vs. friend. “Hated playing against him, hated his voice, hated seeing him. I respected him, though. He developed that hate from him kicking my ass. He used to torture me – and he got me ready for the future. I let him know that all the time.”

D’Angelo Russell says he hated Patrick Beverley before the two became teammates in Minnesota.

Said Finch: “Pat’s not afraid to hold others accountable – in a way that’s non-threatening. He’s not trying to bully anyone out of the spotlight. He’s not trying to take anyone’s team from him.”

Towns said he always considered Beverley “an ass—-. But if he is on your team, you’re very grateful.”

The Wolves need to work all the way to the end now, each game a proverbial playoff game until they can get there for real. It’s a shame they have taken this promising step in the era of the Play-In – they would be a solid No. 7, headed toward a first-round series against Memphis instead of sweating out a potentially crushing two-game elimination by a team as many as 12 games behind them in the standings.

Finch, with some dark humor, acknowledged that he doesn’t do much scoreboard watching these days. “It just ruins my evening,” he said.

But on that Friday in late March, with the nemesis Dallas Mavericks in their crosshairs, the Wolves enjoyed the night from start to finish. In the fourth quarter, Beverley looked ready to sub in, then twice ran back to the bench on his own, smiling while anticipating a Mavericks timeout, the home team’s lead bloating to 24.

Finally, with six minutes left, coach Jason Kidd went white-flag and subbed out all five spots. Ninety-four seconds later, Finch pulled Towns, Edwards and Russell.

Used to be, that was a sign of lost causes, Minnesota starters incapable of winning, their night over early. These days, it’s more about keeping their powder dry for what’s to come.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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