Timberwolves finally put it all together in Indiana


From start to finish, end to end, on offense and defense, the Timberwolves flattened the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday. No asterisks in this one. No missing All-Stars for the opponent. No stretches of lackluster effort that made fans change the channel, or worse.

For the previous four games of their winning streak, the Timberwolves hoped they were starting to become the team everyone was hoping to see. Wednesday night in Indianapolis, they finally looked like it. Their 115-101 victory over a Pacers team that had won five straight and eight of its last 10 was, by far, the most complete performance of the season, giving the Wolves five wins in a row and some much-needed positive vibes.

“I just told the guys that was our best performance of the season, no doubt,” coach Chris Finch said.

The Wolves outscored the Pacers 74-38 in the paint and 22-14 in transition, dished out 31 assists, shot 61 percent from the field and outrebounded Indiana 50-30. The Pacers are well coached and play hard, two elements that often lead to major struggles for the Wolves. But they didn’t get outworked in Indiana. They didn’t get stagnant. They went right at the Pacers from the opening tip and never let up, playing with a level of intensity that helped them overcome 23 turnovers.

“It feels like, from start to finish, we were just the better team tonight,” said Austin Rivers, who played 20 minutes while filling in for the injured Jordan McLaughlin. “Whereas earlier in the season we were so up in the air, a little bit all over the place, tonight we were consistent through and through.”

Little by little, the signs have been starting to indicate a growing chemistry with the group. For the first time this season, they emerged at the same time.

“Very, very pleasing,” Finch said. “Hopefully it’s one more step, many more to go, but one more step in the right direction.”

McDaniels coming on

There were players who scored more points and grabbed more rebounds than Jaden McDaniels on Wednesday night, but no one made a greater impact on the game. McDaniels’ improved two-way play has keyed this winning streak, and he was at his best against an explosive Pacers backcourt.

McDaniels blocked four shots and gave the Timberwolves the pit bull point-of-attack defender on the perimeter they desperately needed against Tyrese Haliburton, who was averaging 20.4 points and a league-leading 10.7 assists per game as the engine of the Pacers offense. With McDaniels as the primary defender, Haliburton missed nine of his first 10 shots and finished with 10 points on 5-for-14 shooting with 14 assists and three turnovers.

“He’s quick, he’s long, he’s athletic,” Finch said. “But what really makes him a great defender is that he cares, he makes all the efforts necessary, he’s got competitiveness, he has a little nasty streak in him.”

The care factor is so important. The Wolves have at times looked like a team that doesn’t care enough. But even though McDaniels is one of the quietest players on the team, he is starting to make louder plays on the court that change the tenor of the game.

McDaniels scored 18 points on 8-for-11 shooting, dunking the ball with ferocity over and over again. He used the rim as a pull-up bar, seemingly trying to shake the competitive juices out of his team with each assault on the basket.

“I didn’t realize how good he was until I played here,” Rivers said. “I always knew he was good, but playing with him, you see stuff and you’re just like, ‘My goodness.’ He has stuff you just can’t teach.”

The real Gobert, please stand up

One game after not registering a single field goal attempt, Rudy Gobert might have delivered his most dominant performance in a Wolves uniform. He had 21 points on 9-for-11 shooting with 16 rebounds.

He didn’t block a shot, but he altered a whole bunch of them from Haliburton, Bennedict Mathurin and any other Pacer who dared go to the rim.

The Pacers entered the night with the seventh-best offense in the NBA but shot just 38.5 percent and tied for their second-lowest scoring total of the season. Gobert’s fingerprints were all over that.

Even more encouraging was the offensive performance around him. It’s been a slog early while Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns learn how to play with a wholly different kind of big man. Edwards found Gobert with a lob and on a baseline drive, and Russell is starting to show better chemistry with him in the pick-and-roll. Not perfect, but better.

“We understand the value of Rudy on both ends of the floor,” Finch said. “He’s a great threat at the rim. He draws a lot of fouls. He’s been huge for us defensively. It just takes a while. We’re so used to playing with a popping big, with the spacing that provides. Now we have kind of the luxury of both. It just takes a while.”

Gobert’s big game was timed well considering Pacers center Myles Turner, another player the Wolves could have considered trading for last summer before swinging their deal with Utah, went off. Turner scored 31 points, hit seven 3s and had seven rebounds and four steals.

KAT being KAT

Karl-Anthony Towns has spent much of the early part of the season trying to get Gobert going offensively, sometimes at the expense of his own production. He leads the team in assists to Gobert and seems determined to make him feel welcomed and accepted on his new team.

He is starting to find ways to get his own offense in the flow while also making sure Gobert gets his. Towns had 23 points on 8-for-11 shooting, the kind of ultra-efficiency we are used to seeing from him. He also had 11 rebounds, eight assists and two blocks. The whole package was on display, from drives to stepbacks to foul drawing that got him to the line for seven attempts.

Towns led the team with five turnovers, but he was crucial in slowing the charge the Pacers were making behind Turner, the only Pacer who really had it going on Wednesday night. Turner’s hot shooting helped Indiana creep in front by a point after being down by as many as 17 in the first quarter, but Towns put his foot down in the third quarter.

He had 13 points, three rebounds, three assists and two blocks to help the Wolves push their lead back into double digits. He was often going right at Turner, the leading shot blocker in the league.

Russell getting defensive

The Timberwolves point guard has never been known to be a defensive stopper, but D’Angelo Russell’s start to the season on that end was poor by even his modest standards. The Wolves figured out how to activate him last season by using him as a sort of free safety in their scrambling scheme, an approach that was made possible by having maniacs such as Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt running around with their hair on fire to cover for him.

With Gobert now anchoring things, the Wolves have had to change their approach. They now deploy a drop-coverage scheme that requires all five players to be more disciplined, less free-wheeling. At times it has looked like Russell is relying almost too much on Gobert to cover for him, resulting in easy drives to the basket, backdoor cuts and slow closeouts to the corner.

The Wolves don’t need him to be Gary Payton in his prime. But they do need more effort from him, and they are starting to see it. He worked his butt off on a late-game possession against Max Strus to help close out the Heat, then had three steals and was super active working through screens to stay in Buddy Hield’s hip pocket Wednesday night. Hield was 5-for-16 from the field.

Russell’s father was sitting courtside next to Alex Rodriguez, so maybe that was added motivation. But when was the last time you saw him hound a ballhandler like that and turn it into a scoop-and-score?

“He was awesome,” Finch said. “He did a really good job of staying close to Hield, and he’s always dangerous out there. Didn’t give him much time and space. Did a really good job. He was really sharp from the beginning.”

He also had 15 points on 7-for-10 shooting and 12 assists, the exact kind of floor-general game this team needs from him. The efficiency is not sustainable. But if he can reach that effort and intensity more often than not, it makes a huge difference in what this team can be.

(Photo of Anthony Edwards: Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today)


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