Timberwolves’ grade on the Towns-Gobert experiment: Incomplete

DENVER — With 3 minutes, 39 seconds to play in the Timberwolves' 112-109 season-ending loss to Denver on Tuesday, Nikola Jokic put up a contested shot in the lane against Karl-Anthony Towns with the Wolves down 97-96.

Jokic missed the shot, and what happened next said everything about what the Timberwolves thought this season was going to be and what it ended up being.

The ball bounced left, where Rudy Gobert was standing. Behind him was Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon. The Wolves brought Gobert in to partner with Towns because of his defensive prowess, but also because he could help resurrect a team that finished 28th in defensive rebounding percentage last season.

The Wolves lost their playoff series last spring against Memphis largely because they couldn't get a rebound, and the Grizzlies slashed them on the offensive glass.

Different year, different personnel, same problem.

Gordon tipped the rebound backward and eventually snared it while Gobert barely laid a finger on it. Moments later, Gordon found Michael Porter Jr. for an open three and a four-point Denver lead. It was a backbreaking sequence that sent the Wolves on their way to another first-round exit.

The Wolves needed Gobert to come down with that rebound in that moment, and it didn't happen. He grabbed 15 others Tuesday night, but they needed that 16th. The version of Gobert the Wolves got this season was up and down, and his play mirrored that of the Wolves as a whole. They improved their defense with Gobert, but their offense got worse. And that annoying rebounding rate? It only ticked up to 26th.

After the game, coach Chris Finch used a phrase that summed up how this season went in the first year of the Gobert and Towns pairing.

"I still remain extremely confident we're able to maximize those guys," Finch said.

Because if there was a common thread throughout the season, the Wolves never got a maximized version of Towns, Gobert or the roster as a whole, and that defined what was largely a lost season for a team that doesn't have a large window to contend.

Disjointed from the start

Even before the start of the season, getting Gobert and Towns on the court together to work on their chemistry was an issue. The Wolves eased Gobert back into action after a summer filled with international play while Towns dealt with an illness that kept him out of a large portion of training camp.

That all contributed to awkwardness when the Wolves opened the season. No game was more fitting of a tell for how their season was going to go — and how much angst the Gobert traded implanted in the fan base — than the Wolves' second game of the season.

The Wolves lost in overtime at home to Utah, the team that sent Gobert to the Wolves and now possesses four of their future first-round draft picks and one of their most recent ones in Walker Kessler, who finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting.

The Wolves blew a 17-point lead, a chronic problem that never got corrected, and they lost to a team that was trying to tank. The Wolves' lack of consistent effort showed up on nights they played some of the worst teams in the league. They finished 6-10 against the bottom five teams in the league. Win a few more of those games, and the Wolves aren't facing No. 1 Denver in the playoffs and likely don't have to play in two play-in games.

Win a few more of those games and there might not be a pressure-packed end to the season, when the Wolves had a pair of meltdowns on the final day of the regular season when Gobert attempted to punch Kyle Anderson in a timeout huddle. The bigger loss for the postseason happened moments earlier when Jaden McDaniels broke his hand punching a wall in the tunnel near the bench.

"We've always played our best basketball while we're in desperation mode. It's not how you want to live," Finch said. "It's all credit to us. We've had many points during the season to let go of the rope or give up on the moment, but we never, ever did. So I love that about our guys. They kept competing. But the more mature team doesn't find themselves in those situations as much."

Making changes

Part of trying to improve their maturity, along with finding a better on-court fit for Anthony Edwards, Towns and Gobert, was trading D'Angelo Russell for Mike Conley in a three-team trade. Out went the more ball-dominant Russell — whose shooting saved the Wolves in a number of games this season, but who also tended to cause friction off the court — for the venerated veteran Conley.

The fit between Russell and Gobert never materialized, as Gobert often frustrated his teammates with his inability to catch the ball. He and Edwards never developed an offensive chemistry. After one loss in Charlotte, Russell responded to a question about his chemistry with Gobert by saying, "He catch the ball, he'll score."

A few days later on Nov. 28, Towns went out because of his right calf injury, meaning the Wolves were going to have to make it work without him for an extended time.

That was a moment that put the Towns-Gobert partnership into a holding pattern. Everything the Wolves did while Towns was out came with an asterisk: "Could this be the same once Towns returns?"

Edwards, who averaged 24.6 points, put together his All-Star campaign while Towns was out, and he was the main force on offense. It became clear then — and Edwards reiterated this case with multiple eye-popping performances in the playoffs — that he has to be the focal point of the offense and perhaps of the franchise's plans moving forward.

"The energy he brings, his personality, when he's playing like that, you see the joy," Conley said after Game 4 of the Denver series. "You see the kid come out of him and you can't help but get excited and he brings everybody along."

But the Wolves never became an offensive force, the way they were last season. The Wolves went from the seventh-most efficient offense last season to 23rd in this one, even as their defense went from 13th to 10th.

Towns returns

Towns returned March 22, just after Edwards had sprained his ankle and right before an illness ripped through several members of the team.

The injuries, the trades and the illness late in the season also meant the Wolves never got to put their ideal starting lineup on the floor more than a few games. The lineup of Conley, Edwards, McDaniels, Towns and Gobert started together only seven times.

Late-game offense sputtered and no double-digit lead was ever safe, a product of not being able to play together for extended periods of time.

But even despite that, Finch said there is still enough evidence that lineups including Towns and Gobert sharing the court can work.

"The most important thing is we have a big enough body of work, I think we can properly evaluate it," Finch said.

After Towns returned, the Wolves did go 6-3 over their last nine games. One of those was a win in San Francisco over Golden State on March 26, and after the game Finch said Gobert had told the team to expect more from him after the All-Star break.

"As you go through the ups and downs of the season, for me, it's always a slow start," Gobert said. "I've had time to just get comfortable in the situation, and also raise my level."

In some ways, that win in Golden State keyed by strong defense represented the high point of the Wolves' season. But good things were short-lived with this Wolves team.

"Bad things after bad things after bad things just happens to us," Edwards said Tuesday after Game 5. "But, all the praise to my teammates, we stuck with all of us. We stuck together through all the adversity."

There was more to come. Reid, who was playing the best basketball of his career, broke his wrist in a loss to Phoenix three nights after that Warriors win. Then came the one-two punch of Gobert and McDaniels in the regular-season finale, with Gobert earning a suspension for a play-in loss to the Lakers after his punch of Anderson, and McDaniels ending his season with a punch of a tunnel wall over frustration with foul calls.

That preceded the loss to the Nuggets, which felt inevitable after Denver drummed the Wolves out of Ball Arena in Game 1. Their problems and lack of cohesion, especially relative to the Nuggets, didn't magically cure themselves in the playoffs.

It all added up to a lost season for a team that is trying to win now. The Wolves never truly got to see what they felt like Towns and Gobert could do.

"I've got to do a better job of trying to figure out an offense that works around these guys a little bit more effortlessly," Finch said.

Gobert was up and down, like when he struggled to catch the ball in the first half for three turnovers — and then when he allowed that Gordon offensive rebound. Towns and Gobert's performances in Game 5 were fitting for how the season played out.

There were some good moments, but nowhere near enough of them.