Frederick: Intensity of Timberwolves’ 2 young stars will dictate play down stretch
The defense of Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels down the stretch will dictate this team’s playoff fate
Back in training camp, Timberwolves coach Chris Finch was asked who Minnesota’s “high motor” players would be for the upcoming campaign. There was a large vacancy in a department that had been filled by Jarred Vanderbilt and Patrick Beverley.
“I’d like to think in our starting lineup, it’s going to be Ant and Jaden,” Finch said.
In some ways, the response was logical. Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels are Minnesota’s best two-way players. They’re young and, thus, figure to be full of energy. Edwards has a great spirit about him; McDaniels takes on the more difficult defensive task on a nightly basis.
But in other ways, there was something insensible about that answer. McDaniels and Edwards had not been consistent sources of energy through the first two years of their careers, and asking players barely old enough to buy alcohol to do anything consistently was a tough ask.
Yet, 64 games into the season, it’s obvious Finch’s prognostication was correct. Edwards and McDaniels are indeed the high-motor players, although their impact in the energy department waxes and wanes — which is why Minnesota looks so full of life some nights and flatlines on others. The Rudy Gobert acquisition was supposed to establish a steadier baseline for the Timberwolves this season, but no roster move seems to change the fact that as Edwards and McDaniels go, so, too, do the Timberwolves.
No wonder, as Finch noted, the Wolves can beat anyone and also lose to anyone.
Minnesota’s 32-32 record is a perfect encapsulation of its season and situation. Relying on two players still in the formative years of their careers to be the guiding forces will produce some high highs and low lows. Another high was recorded late Tuesday, as Minnesota went into Los Angeles and topped the Clippers 108-101 in a nationally-televised contest.
McDaniels led all Wolves’ scorers with 20 points on a hyper-efficient 8-for-12 shooting night. More important, he and Edwards set the defensive tone, locking in on individual assignments to suffocate the Clippers’ isolation-based offense. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were held south of 50% shooting from the floor, and even with those two superstars in action, McDaniels looked like the game’s top wing for most of the night.
And on a night where Edwards again struggled from the field as he continues to adapt to heightened levels of defensive attention, the guard made an impact on the other end.
The Clippers (33-31) shot just 42% from the field while turning the ball over 25 times — 14 of those Timberwolves steals.
Like McDaniels, Mike Conley also had three steals. Taurean Prince returned to action to provide a needed boost off the bench. Jordan McLaughlin looked the most like himself since he returned from a calf strain. Kyle Anderson was again Minnesota’s closer, scoring six points to go with five rebounds in the fourth quarter.
Gobert delivered a dominant stretch of basketball in the second quarter to help put the Wolves in front. Naz Reid tallied 12 points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes, even drawing social media praise from LeBron James. Nickeil Alexander-Walker continues to impress off the pine.
But again, it started with Minnesota’s two budding stars. They brought energy and intensity from the outset and everyone else followed. Edwards and McDaniels shut down Dallas’ Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic on the final possession of the Wolves’ pre-break victory over the Mavericks and similarly handcuffed the Clippers’ pair of perennial all-stars Tuesday.
When McDaniels and Edwards reach the point where they can bring that mentality on a nightly basis, the Timberwolves will be a force in need of reckoning. They likely won’t reach that point this season. For every lockdown performance like the one against the Clippers, there is a game where, say, Charlotte’s Terry Rozier and LaMelo Ball waltz into the lane at will.
But the number of times Edwards and McDaniels can deliver strong performances over the final 18 games will determine the Timberwolves’ playoff fate. Those two have proven, dating back to last year’s playoffs, how much they love the big moments. This closing stretch will be filled with them.
How many times can they answer the call?
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