Timberwolves coaching staff flexing its collective muscle in Karl-Anthony Towns’ absence

Timberwolves defender Kyle Anderson was constantly looking over both shoulders as Golden State was set to inbound the ball with 10 seconds left in Sunday’s game at Target Center, seemingly waiting for something specific.

Trailing by three points, the Warriors needed a triple. And Anderson was guarding Klay Thompson at the top of the floor. It’s no surprise Golden State would look the way of Thompson, one of the NBA’s all-time great sharpshooters. But Anderson was prepared for Steph Curry’s screen and Thompson’s flare out toward the opposite extended elbow. Anderson was on Thompson like glue as the veteran guard caught the ball and fired up a 3-point shot, which clanked off the rim, effectively sealing the Timberwolves’ victory.

Anderson is a heady player, but how was he so prepared for the Warriors’ inbound play? In the timeout just moments prior, Timberwolves assistant coach Micah Nori showed the team the play the Warriors were likely to run.

“Micah, they didn’t even go to the coaches’ huddle. Micah came to our huddle and was like, ‘This what they’re gonna run. Be ready for this,’ ” Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards said. “And they came out and ran the exact play. Micah is a genius. That was the first time he ever did that.”

Chalk it up as another stroke of genius for Minnesota’s coaching staff, which repeatedly has flexed its collective muscles over the past couple of weeks.

The Wolves have yet to break stride after losing star player Karl-Anthony Towns to injury. They’re 6-3 since the big man went down with a torn meniscus, with two of those losses coming in the first three games without him.

Minnesota was also without fellow big men Naz Reid and Rudy Gobert for multiple games in this recent stretch. And yet it rarely seems to matter who the Wolves have at their disposal. They always find a way to make it work.

Defensively, the adept coaching has been on display all season. Sure, the Timberwolves’ No. 1 defensive rating is largely a product of Minnesota being armed with Gobert and a host of elite perimeter defenders. But on a game-by-game basis, the Wolves’ defensive game plans often exceed whatever their opponents put together.

“Especially with the way we’re built, every day we have to think about how we’re going to approach this with matchups and coverages and stuff like that. Our staff does an amazing job of really coming to the meeting in the morning being super creative when they need to be, but also not straying too far away from our foundation, which is also important. But yeah, there’s a lot that goes into it,” Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch said in January. “A lot of teams kind of roll out the same defense every night. But we’re not built that way, so we gotta really kind of pick out certain points of emphasis that we’re focusing on.”

Much of what the Timberwolves do well defensively — with assistant coach Elston Turner heading that end of the floor — is centered on Gobert. But when Gobert was out for games against Utah and Denver, Minnesota found other ways to get stops, mimicking the fly-around brand of basketball that made the team successful during the 2021-22 season.

On the other end, the Wolves have done more than survive on offense without Towns — they’ve thrived. Minnesota’s 3-point volume is up, and the ball movement has increased. The team’s offensive rating, a concern for much of the season, has ticked up as a result.

“I think it’s a byproduct of the way we’ve had to play since KAT’s been out,” veteran point guard Mike Conley said.

The Timberwolves are rotating between Kyle Anderson and Naz Reid at the power forward spot, using their differing strengths depending on the lineups. When Gobert is off the floor, Minnesota is running a five-out offense that opens the lane for anyone aiming to attack. Even when Gobert is in the game and not involved in direct screen-and-roll action, he often is working from an extended dunker spot position that helps keep the floor spread.

“I don’t think I’ve called a post-up play for a while. We’re playing a little bit faster in transition. I think we have multiple handlers out there to be able to initiate, and the ball is kind of flowing through everyone’s hands a little bit earlier through that,” Finch said. “But we played this way a lot last year. So we’re pretty comfortable with it.”

The Timberwolves are executing screen and rolls where Kyle Anderson or even Anthony Edwards is the screener at the top of the floor. A key possession in the Golden State victory came with a minute to play, when Edwards set a screen at the top of the floor, rolled, caught the ball at the elbow and dumped a pass down to Gobert, who made a pair of free throws to extend Minnesota’s lead to five.

Edwards as the screener is the type of ingenuity the Wolves’ coaching staff has displayed to compensate for the lack of Towns. The outside-the-box thinking has continued to rotations, where the Wolves have trotted out a three-point-guard lineup featuring Conley, Monte Morris and Jordan McLaughlin that shined as all three floor generals played seamlessly off one another. Conley noted that’s not a look he has experienced often.

“But sometimes on certain nights, it’s what’s working for us, and we’ve got three really good ones, and every one of them knows how to play and find each other,” Conley said. “We play off of each other very well, and hopefully we get more opportunities.”

If it continues to work, they will. Because as Finch and Co. have shown, they’ll do whatever is necessary to maximize Minnesota’s chances of success with whoever is available on that given night.

“Like everybody, we have things we’re lacking,” Finch said. “But the collective is better than all the individual parts, and that’s what any team should be.”

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