Karl-Anthony Towns has spent most of his career trying to say the right things, trying to craft his image, trying to be your friend. And where has that gotten him?
Prior to this season, his Minnesota Timberwolves were an NBA afterthought. Towns has been labeled soft, an empty box score, a losing player. In the wake of the Timberwolves’ collapse against the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 3 of their playoff series, all of those old criticisms and more were raining upon him and his team once again.
Towns took the brunt of it, his four shot attempts, the Grizzlies’ 50-13 run and his comments afterward giving vocal critics more to howl about. In the two days leading into Game 4 Saturday night, those around Towns noticed a change in him. He was furious about losing Game 3, mad about not getting enough touches as the game slipped away in the fourth quarter. And for one of the few times in his seven years in the NBA, Towns finally let everyone know about it.
Teammates. Coaches. Friends. Opponents. There wasn’t a person in his orbit who didn’t understand that Towns was upset and demanded that things change. For once, he wasn’t worried about stepping on anyone’s toes. He wasn’t concerned about hurting feelings. He wasn’t choosing his words carefully. He wanted the ball, and he wanted it now, dammit.
“He was really focused,” coach Chris Finch said. “He was angry. The goal today was (to) come in, and he played pissed and loose. I thought our guys did that.”
Towns has scored more points than the 33 he put up in Game 4. He has grabbed more rebounds than the 14 he hauled in against the Grizzlies. He has been more efficient than the 8-for-17 from the field than he was on Saturday. But it would be difficult to find a better game from him than the one he delivered in a 119-118 victory over Memphis that may have saved the Timberwolves’ season. It tied the best-of-seven series at 2-2 and turned Game 5 in Memphis on Tuesday into a critical contest rather than the coronation it could have been had the Grizzlies taken this one.
One game after getting those four shots, Towns led the team with 17. He also got to the line for 17 free-throw attempts, but he channeled all of that anger and emotion into hyper-aggression the Timberwolves badly needed. Had they gone down, 3-1, with two losses at home, the series would have been all but over. Instead, the Wolves walked out of Target Center on Saturday fully believing the series is there for taking. If Towns plays like he did in Game 4, they could be right.
Towns called Finch’s description of him as “angry” in the lead-up to this game “very fair. Just not the most pleasant when I’m angry.”
Towns was wired from the start, and sometimes that can be a bad thing. If the emotion goes unharnessed, he can complain to the officials too much, force shots on wild drives to the basket and pick up silly fouls that compromise his ability to stay on the floor. There was a lot of that for him in Games 2 and 3, both Wolves losses, when he compiled 10 personal fouls and 11 shot attempts.
Many lined up to let Towns have it. Some of the criticism held weight. His volatility with officials can sometimes trickle down to the rest of the Wolves and cause them to lose focus. His foul trouble, more so in Game 2 than in Game 3, can get the offense out of rhythm. And the ease with which he has been schemed out of some important games, especially only taking one shot in the fourth quarter of Game 3, has been concerning.
But the inability to hold a 25-point third-quarter lead wasn’t all attributed to Towns’ comportment or his foul trouble. He took only one shot in the fourth quarter, and Wolves guards D’Angelo Russell and Patrick Beverley combined to go 0-for-8 in the period. Both Russell and Beverley take pride in running an offense, but their inability to get him the ball while looking for their own shots was glaring, and it manifested when Towns hit his only shot of the quarter, then stared at his hands to imply that it had been way too long for him to go without getting a shot.
He was asked about his lack of touches after the game and gave an abrupt “Next question” response, a rare short answer from one of the most talkative players in the league. The implication was not that he did not like the question, but rather he didn’t want to say what was truly on his mind about not getting enough touches. He saved that message for the film session the next day and Game 4 on Saturday.
In years past, Towns might have bit his tongue, preferring not to make a spectacle out of it. Not this time.
“He was angry, I think, at a lot of different things, but not distractedly so,” Finch said. “I thought he did a great job of keeping his emotions in the right place. He played with a lot of emotion, which is what he needs to do because it fuels his game. But he channeled it into his game and not elsewhere.”
This time he was focused. His anger was controlled. Nothing was getting in his way; not a right knee injury that momentarily knocked Anthony Edwards out of the game, not yet another protester who was tackled as she stepped onto the court.
In pregame warmups, he went 3-for-4 from the logo, then buried three straight from the top of the arc and started barking to no one in particular. He came out aggressive in the first quarter, only registering one field-goal attempt, but getting to the line for eight free throws. Each time after he was fouled, he stalked out to the logo, stepped on it and stormed back to the line, where he drew a deep breath before every shot in an effort to calm himself.
“It allows me to calm down and get my chi right,” Towns said. “I just feel like free throws give me a good chance to put good energy on the ball, whether that’s the next shot for me (or) the next shot for my teammates.”
Towns shot eight of the Wolves’ 18 free throws in the first quarter, a staggering number of attempts for a team that often complains that it doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt with officials. For the game, the Grizzlies were called for 33 fouls to Minnesota’s 23, and the Wolves went 31-for-40 from the free throw line to the Grizzlies’ 19-for-25.
“I’ve never seen a more inconsistent, arrogant officiated game,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said, later adding that “we know we’ve got to get better. But from the get-go it was foul, foul, foul, foul. Inconsistency.”
Edwards shrugged off a knee scare to score 24 points. Beverley had 17 points, five assists and two blocked shots, and Jordan McLaughlin had an enormous 16 points off the bench. McLaughlin did not play in Game 3, a decision Finch said happened because “sometimes you do stupid things.” He was 5-for-6 from the field and 4-for-4 from 3-point range. With Russell’s shot not falling again — he was 3-for-12 and scored 10 points — and Malik Beasley bizarrely not even attempting a shot in 11:35, the Wolves desperately needed McLaughlin’s output.
“Jordan McLaughlin,” Edwards crowed in his postgame comedy routine. “Anything you ask me, that’s what I’m saying. Y’all might not want to ask me any more questions. Jordan McLaughlin. That’s my answer. Everything. Everything.”
🔥🔥 JMACCCCCC 🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/c9b7569M5Y
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) April 24, 2022
Beverley and Russell combined for 34 shots in Game 3. They only took 20 in Game 4, with Beverley going 5-for-8 from the field and 4-for-6 from 3. The lower volume from the starting backcourt meant the ball could be put in Towns’ hands a lot more. The Timberwolves got on the board in the first quarter on a Towns 3, and he looked at his hands again as if to say, “I told you so.”
He then proceeded to throw the whole bag at the Grizzlies, starting with a Euro step so flashy it might have to be dubbed a “Dominican step” in honor of his mother’s heritage.
KAT with the ENORMOUS Eurostep and reverse finish 😳 pic.twitter.com/kd75zt7y2y
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) April 24, 2022
He’s had this Dirk Nowitzki-esque one-legged fallaway for a few years now. The more he masters it, the harder it is for a defense to neutralize him with a quick double-team, as the Grizzlies did for a second straight night.
Under 7 to play on ESPN pic.twitter.com/pEqE89JVHx
— NBA (@NBA) April 24, 2022
In the fourth, Finch busted out a play the team hasn’t gone through much of late, if at all. Towns came off a pindown like a guard and let his shot fly, and that broke a 107-107 tie. He had attempted just two 3s in the previous two games in the series.
“That’s something we used to do a lot more for him,” Finch said. “We felt that we could maybe get him a good look there. He was in a good groove. Good time to get him the ball. PB set a great screen.”
4:29 left on ESPN pic.twitter.com/Trs7cv99sT
— NBA (@NBA) April 24, 2022
He also had three assists, two of them to Jarred Vanderbilt cutting to the basket.
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) April 24, 2022
“He was really good from the beginning,” Finch said. “Just aggressive, putting the pressure on them. Forcing them to blow the whistle, get to the free-throw line. Things that he hadn’t been doing the last couple games.”
Russell and Beverley also combined for 12 assists. They saw that Towns had the hot hand early and kept on feeding him. This is the recipe for advancing to the next round: Towns playing 40-plus minutes, staying out of foul trouble and dictating the terms of engagement. His last two games have been among the best on defense of his career. He is playing the high wall to near-perfection, flustering Ja Morant in the process, protecting the rim and grabbing rebounds.
“Starts with not having a lot of fouls,” said Towns, who only had three in the game. “Doing my job and just never forgetting to do my job, whatever it takes to win. Dominate the game and do whatever it takes to get some touches.”
His fourth quarter was immaculate: 13 points on 4-for-5 shooting, 2-for-2 from 3 with two rebounds, the two free throws to seal the game and a block of Morant to keep the Wolves in the lead at 102-101.
“I saw the best big man in the league tonight,” Edwards said.
If he truly wants to stake that claim, this is the kind of game he has to deliver night in and night out. That is the standard held for Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, two players considered higher on the big-man pecking order than Towns.
The Timberwolves will begin preparations for Game 5 in Memphis on Tuesday with the belief that they are better than the Grizzlies, that this series easily could be 3-1 had they not folded so dramatically over the final 13 minutes of Game 3. There is a strong argument to be made that the Wolves have been the better team for longer stretches of this series than the Grizzlies. But they also need to know that there were plenty of things working in their favor that they cannot plan on happening again.
Morant had 15 assists but was generally terrible, shooting 4-for-13 and scoring 11 points. All five Grizzlies starters had at least four fouls, with Jaren Jackson Jr. fouling out and Dillon Brooks, Desmond Bane (who led the way with 34 points) and Xavier Tillman all being called for five. The Wolves shot 15 more free throws and held the Grizzlies to just six offensive rebounds, an exceedingly difficult maneuver to pull off against the best offensive rebounding team in the league, and still won by just one point.
The Wolves can expect a much sharper, more energetic Grizzlies team at FedEx Forum in Game 5. Towns has had two good games and two off nights in this series. He has to be great like he was Saturday, because when he is, the Grizzlies cannot handle him.
Politeness and decorum went out the window for Towns over the last two days. He told his teammates and his coaches that the loss, and the way they played down the stretch, was unacceptable. He told them that he needed the damn ball in his hands.
Some people may not like the way Towns talks in press conferences. Some may not like the way he interacts with officials. Some may hate it when he gets into foul trouble or when he flails his arms on a drive to the basket.
When he plays like he did in Game 4, channeling that anger and passion in positive directions, it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks.
(Photo of Karl-Anthony Towns: Joe Murphy / NBAE via Getty Images)