Anthony Edwards changed his mentality and, with it, the Timberwolves’ trajectory

DENVER — Anthony Edwards was upset, mostly with himself. The Timberwolves had just dropped a game in Dallas that they led by six points with 3 minutes, 53 seconds to play.

Edwards scored the bucket to put the Timberwolves up six, and took just one more shot the rest of the way before a chuck with seven seconds left when the game was already lost.

That, he felt, was not enough.

“I feel like once again I left bullets in the chamber,” Edwards told reporters. “But I’ll take this one, for sure. I gotta be aggressive down the stretch.”

Edwards had previously used the analogy after the Timberwolves lost a game in Oklahoma City in late December. Now, he was doubling down.

“Yeah, I need to take them (shots) with two minutes left on the clock,” Edwards said. “That’s on me, though. I gotta be better, I gotta be more aggressive, I can’t let the double team just make me not aggressive.”

That was about the last thing anyone in the Timberwolves organization wanted to hear. Hero ball was the death of this team over the previous two seasons, and yet here Edwards was insinuating it was the solution.

It was not.

From Christmas onward, the Timberwolves sported the worst clutch-time offensive rating in the NBA, scoring just 0.95 points per possession when games were hanging in the balance.

Edwards’ clutch numbers in that span: 37 percent shooting from the floor and 20 percent from three-point distance to go with 10 turnovers versus just 12 assists.

The stretch seemingly provided some semblance of evidence that this might just be the way Edwards viewed the game and was the status quo to which he would revert, particularly when push came to shove. And, so long as that was the case, the Timberwolves were not going to win big.

Consider the 2022 playoffs, when they fell to Memphis in the first round in six games thanks to a series of late-game collapses. Edwards was 2-for-11 shooting in clutch time in that series.

Consider the 2022-23 regular season — a disappointment by just about any metric — when Edwards had more turnovers (16) than assists (11) in clutch time. It was all representative of a mentality that was destined to keep a remarkably skilled player from reaching his full potential.

“There’s still a lot of habits that people have. It’s hard to break habits. Guys have played a certain way their entire life, it’s hard to break ’em in a couple month span,” Wolves veteran point guard Mike Conley said about no one in particular in late February. “I think we’ve kinda become a little bit more like hero ball and (when) stuff like that happens say, ‘I’ve got to get us out of this,’ or ‘I gotta get us outta that’. Trying to stay away from that mentality, I think, is gonna be a constant fight for us.”

And then, at some point in the past four months, everything changed. For Edwards and, thus, the Timberwolves.

Never was that more evident than with five minutes to play in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday in Denver, with Minnesota leading by three.

AKA: clutch time.

Edwards was patient in his approach as he deliberately came off a screen from Rudy Gobert. Edwards had dominated the entire game with his ability to score. So Denver was, justifiably, selling out to slow him down.

Nikola Jokic showed off the screen to effectively put two on the ball. Gobert rolled to the rim, forcing Aaron Gordon to suck into the paint. That left Naz Reid open in the corner. Edwards made a split-second decision to whip the ball to the corner.

Gordon had to dart back out to Reid, who drove past Gordon and got to the bucket for a score and a foul.

Beautiful basketball.

“When he draws three people,” Reid said, “he makes the right play all the time.”

That’s a very recent revelation.

“Ant got so much better at finding his teammates when the double team comes or any time they put two guys on him,” Gobert said. “It’s hard for them to send two because they know he’s capable of making those plays. And just that itself is allowing him to get more situations one-on-one. He’s been growing every day, getting more mature every single night. It’s fun to be a part of.”

When exactly this epiphany set in is still unknown. There were hints of it even within the struggles. After an early February loss to Orlando — another late-game collapse — Edwards was asked how the Timberwolves could ditch the hero-ball approach.

“Myself,” Edwards said. “I got to stop holding the ball.”

Though it wasn’t evident at the time that he believed what he was saying.

Because real change didn’t seem to occur until Karl-Anthony Towns was sidelined with his torn meniscus. In the past, when Towns was out of the lineup, the lack of a secondary scorer made Edwards’ life difficult. Defenses paid extra attention to Edwards, and he compounded the problem by trying to force the issue. It was almost as if Edwards went into games thinking he had to score his 25 points and Towns’ 25. It rarely worked, and after the fact, Edwards would simply lament Towns’ absence and convince himself the problems would be solved upon the big man’s return.

Not this time. Reality seemed to set in for Edwards that he had to play a different way in order for the team to succeed without its second all-star in games.

“When KAT goes down, it definitely puts more pressure on everybody, because he’s a walking 25 (points)-and-10 (rebounds) guy. It was on me to get my guys involved,” Edwards said. “Get them easier looks and still be able to be aggressive. Just trying to do it a little bit more when he’s out.”

He involved others — and players like Reid, Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker stepped up.

That approach led to a lot of wins and a more efficient offense over the next month than the Timberwolves had produced all season up to that point. Perhaps that’s what convinced Edwards to permanently adjust his ways.

He sure sounded like a changed man heading into the playoffs. Asked ahead of the Phoenix series how he could finally advance past the first round, Edwards referenced the late-game execution.

“Once again, trusting my teammates, not playing hero ball at the end and (taking) all the tough shots,” Edwards said. “Trusting my teammates when they’re open and live with the results.”

He was again asked about the bullets-in-the-chamber comment, and his answer was a 180.

“You need your teammates to win the game, especially when they’re guarding how they guard me. They’re putting two, three people on me. I feel like the shots I’mma take are the bullets I can let go,” he said. “The other bullets I left in the chamber is for my teammates. And … when I find them when they’re open, if they make those shots, it’s going to be hard to beat us.”

Sure enough, the Timberwolves have posted the best late-game offense in the NBA thus far this postseason. In two clutch-time games — Game 4 in Phoenix in the first round and Game 1 in Denver in the second — the Wolves are scoring 1.8 points per clutch-time possession. Some of the scoring is done by the 22-year-old guard, while some of it is coming from others.

But all of it stems from Edwards’ approach. Wolves assistant coach Micah Nori noted this is Edwards’ third playoff rodeo. The game is likely slowing down for him, which makes decision-making all the easier. But that still has to be combined with a buy-in that clearly has taken place.

“We trust each other. It doesn’t matter down the stretch who takes the shot, just find the open guy,” Edwards said. “Everybody put the work in, and I trust my teammates, so I can’t wait to pass it to them if they’re open.”

Which is a nice thing to say. But it’s another thing to do consistently. That Edwards continued to execute that plan even on a night when his teammates combined to shoot 6 for 27 in the first half spoke volumes.

Edwards has scored 16-plus points in six of the 10 halves he has played this postseason. And yet his offensive output has yet to lead to over-aggression.

“Everybody is going to miss shots. I’m going to miss shots. I’m not going to make all my shots. I don’t care how many shots they’re going to miss. If they’re open, I’m going to pass it every single time,” Edwards said. “I see the work that they put in. So yeah, I don’t care how many shots you take — make or miss. I’m going to throw it to you if you’re open.”

And the Wolves are going to win because of it. Because their young star evolved in a matter of months into everything the organization could have ever hoped he would become, and more.

“Just really proud of the way he’s accepted the kind of growth that he needed to have to be where he’s at right now. Because a lot of that has to do with him understanding the game better. Understanding how to play off his teammates,” Conley said. “It’s not easy for a 22-year-old to make that adjustment so quickly.”

  • Minnesota will play Game 2 of the semifinals at 9 p.m. Central Time on Monday. Watch the game on TNT and TruTV or listen on 100.3 FM.

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