Why Karl-Anthony Towns’ injury was a ‘blessing in disguise’ for the Timberwolves’ offense

  • The Timberwolves and Phoenix will face off in Game 4 of their playoff series at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday. Watch on BSN, TNT or 100.3 FM.

PHOENIX — Anthony Edwards’ playmaking ability is on full display in Minnesota’s first-round playoff series against Phoenix. The guard is consistently making the Suns pay for loading up to stop him by generating easy looks for teammates. And when Phoenix shows any cracks, Edwards is finding buckets of his own.

It’s a pristine balance of smarts and aggression borne of film sessions with player development coach Chris Hines.

“I just know the game plan is (the Suns) putting the high wall, put two on me,” Edwards said. “Therefore when Rudy (Gobert) rolls, it’s going to pull one side in, so one corner is going to be open, or they gonna bump Rudy on the roll, so the wing is gonna be open. Or, if they don’t put two on me, I’m just gonna attack.”

It’s a brilliant offensive process, and what Timberwolves coach Chris Finch has tried to push the 22-year-old toward for the better part of the past two years. Prior to this, Edwards was known to force the issue, attack on his own even when opposing defenses were stacked to specifically stop him. It led to tough shots and turnovers.

Both have been largely limited in this series, which the Wolves lead 3-0 going into Sunday night’s Game 4 Sunday night in Phoenix.

Finch said this is the most composed stretch of basketball he’s seen Edwards play.

“He’s a smart player. He just has had a lot to learn, and he’s learned it a lot,” Finch said. “He’s benefiting, and we’re really benefiting.”

The message seemed to truly sink for Edwards when Karl-Anthony Towns went down with a meniscus injury in March, which sidelined the all-star big man for a month.

“When KAT goes down, it definitely puts more pressure on everybody, because he’s a walking 25 (-point) and 10 (-rebound) guy,” Edwards said. “It was on me to get my guys involved, get them easier looks and still be able to be aggressive.”

Everyone carried a bit more of the offensive load in Towns’ absence. Mike Conley became more aggressive offensively. Ditto for Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Naz Reid, Jaden McDaniels and Kyle Anderson.

Without Towns, the ball had to move more for Minnesota to generate good looks. And when it did, everyone profited.

The production from all of “the others” skyrocketed. And so, too, did their confidence. Suddenly, the role players feel it’s their place to play aggressively on offense.

Conley, who scored 10 points in the second quarter of Game 3, noted the starts of the second and fourth quarters are “a time when I can be more aggressive. Ant sits there for a little bit, and we’ve got a group of guys out there that just move the ball and whoever’s got it going has it going. Tonight was one of those nights where I just needed to be aggressive and try to look for my offense a little bit. Our team needed it, and I think it helped bridge that gap for a little bit.”

That’s a rhythm that was established when Towns was out of commission.

“We’re not necessarily changing the ways we played, or guys haven’t necessarily deferred,” Finch said. “Kind of like little brother growing up. They’re a better version of who they’ve always been. They have the confidence playing like that, there’s no reason to take a back seat to anybody.”

That was something Alexander-Walker predicted when Towns’ return was imminent at the end of the regular season.

“I think him being out has allowed everyone to step up and play and have roles and get going for the postseason. I think the postseason definitely shows — and my career is a testament to that — that you never know what you might need,” Alexander-Walker said. “And just being able to be available and be providing, guys stepping up big, it’s good to get their game reps now.”

Those reps are paying dividends in the moments of the season that matter most. Alexander-Walker took 10 3-point attempts in Game 3, including one he buried off the bounce. All four makes came in the third quarter after a tough shooting first half that didn’t deter him from firing away with full-fledged confidence.

“End of first half, I wasn’t as frustrated as I usually am by good shots not going in. Monte (Morris) was kind of in the back of my ear going, ‘Don’t worry, Keil, they’re going to fall. Those are great shots. They’re going to fall, they’re going to fall,’ ” Alexander-Walker said. “And some of them were rimming in and out. Footwork, mechanics, everything felt good. So I just trusted that.

“I knew we were going to get a bunch of good looks. I knew Ant was going to continue to make the right plays, because he’s been doing that all series. He trusts me. I think the cool thing about it is none of those shots really go in tonight without the trust of my teammates. To have that feeling, it’s a really good one.”

That has unlocked Minnesota’s offense, which sputtered at numerous points in the regular season. The consistent aggression of the collective — paired with Edwards’ willingness to trust and create for others — has pushed Minnesota into a different stratosphere on that end of the floor.

Oddly enough, that transformation took place when one of the team’s most skilled offensive players wasn’t available. Minnesota’s offense went from middle-of-the-pack for most of the season to a top-10 unit in Towns’ absence.

“I think KAT going out might’ve been a little blessing for us in disguise,” Conley said. “Just with the fact that all of us who’ve had to pick up our game a little bit offensively got into a really good rhythm and found plays that really fit all of our players and our roles.”

It’s a credit to Towns, the coaching staff and everyone else that they’ve maintained the same rhythm and confidence while reintegrating the forward into the offense at the season’s most critical juncture.

“First thing he did was say he’s just trying to blend into what we’ve done and what we’ve been trying to accomplish over the last month or so,” Conley said. “He’s done a great job of doing that, and not just trying to overwhelm himself by coming back and trying to be too much. So, I give a lot of credit to KAT (for) being able to be unselfish and allowing us to do what we do still. We know KAT is going to have big nights regardless of what we do.”

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