Between the growling and the snarling, the pushing and the prodding, the constant demands that the young Minnesota Timberwolves hold themselves to a higher standard, the occasion to see a twinkle in the corner of Coach Tom Thibodeau’s eye has indeed been rare.
Yet there it was on Thursday, impossible for the all-business coach to hide when he started to talk about the development of former University of Kentucky star Karl-Anthony Towns.
“Karl’s scoring inside, outside, making plays,” Thibodeau said. “I think his defense is improving. His rebounding has been great all year and he’s taking the challenge on. He and (Andrew Wiggins). So they set the tone for the team. The better they play defensively, the better our team will play defensively.”
As the schedule has gotten tougher and their playoff odds have gotten longer, Towns has risen to the occasion to give long-suffering Wolves fans something they are unaccustomed to seeing — games that matter in March.
Towns has been at the center of Minnesota’s surge toward playoff contention, averaging 27.9 points on 60 percent shooting and 13.2 rebounds over the last 26 games, a stretch in which the Timberwolves have gone 15-11 and beaten the likes of the Rockets, Clippers (twice), Jazz, Raptors, Thunder and Nuggets (twice). The Wolves have won five of their last seven games to climb to 2 1/2 games behind Denver for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, with the Golden State Warriors set to visit on Friday night.
With Zach LaVine out since Feb. 3 because of a torn ACL in his left knee, Towns and Wiggins have had to shoulder even more of the load. The sense of urgency has worn well on the reigning rookie of the year.
“Desperation makes you do a lot of things you couldn’t normally do,” Towns said. “Being so close to the playoffs, I have a lot of desperation trying to play the best that I can so I can try to help us get to the playoffs and get that eighth spot.”
During the Wolves’ miserable 6-18 start, Towns was taking 3.8 three-pointers per game and hitting them at a respectable 36.3 percent. Over the last two months, he is attempting 2.5 per game but making them at a sparkling 40.9 percent. Meanwhile, he leads the NBA in points in the paint and unveils a different weapon in his game seemingly every week — the one-legged Dirk fade-away, a left-handed hook shot, a pump fake and scoop off a drive to the rim.
“I don’t think one guy can guard him,” Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle said.
It’s not just what he is doing, but who he is doing it against.
He hung 37 points and 12 rebounds on DeAndre Jordan in January, then put 29 and 14 on one of the league’s best defenders on Wednesday night. He had 21 points and 15 boards against Rudy Gobert and the Jazz and went for 37 and 22 in a shootout loss in Houston.
And in four games against the Nuggets, whose supremely talented Nikola Jokic is routinely compared to Towns on the list of the league’s versatile young big men, Towns has averaged 25.6 points, 14.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists on 52.7 percent shooting. Jokic has averaged 14.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists and shot 46.9 percent.
“I’m seeing things at a much slower pace,” Towns said. “A lot of times it feels like I’m seeing things in slow motion out there. Just finding holes much easier than last year.”
The biggest change lately has been on defense, where Towns and Wiggins have gained a better understanding of Thibodeau’s system. The mental mistakes and open layups that were surrendered while they hesitated with their decision-making earlier in the season are gradually disappearing.
“Me and Wigg were talking the other day about how sometimes we’re moving and we don’t even realize we’re moving to the right spot without thinking,” Towns said. “It’s just our bodies are doing it for us.”
In the six games since the All-Star break, the Timberwolves rank first in the NBA in net rating, defensive rating and field goal percentage defense.
The odds are still against them. The Wolves (26-37) are in 11th in the West, with Portland and Dallas sitting between them and the Nuggets. Eleven of their final 15 games are on the road.
But the Wolves do have a chance. And for a team that has not made the playoffs since 2004, and a fan base even more desperate than the players are, that’s a pretty good start.
“I think people are finding a sense of hope, finally,” Towns said. “Just to see hope come together with results, I think that’s what’s making people so excited. They’re not just hearing about how good we can be, they’re seeing it.”