MINNEAPOLIS – Five takeaways from the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 119-118 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies Saturday night at Target Center in Game 4 of their Western Conference first-round playoff series:
1. An angry KAT can be a dangerous KAT
Doing anything angry is a tricky thing. It’s generally better to be mad than depressed, at least, because there’s more energy and motivation behind anger. But it can cloud the mind, overwhelm you and, when things go sideways again, have you stewing anew.
Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns found the right line for his anger this time, channeling it into big production (33 points, 14 rebounds, 14-of-17 free throws) that encouraged his teammates and discouraged the Grizzlies to tie the series at 2-2.
Why was Towns so angry? Anyone paying attention to this best-of-seven knew that big KAT had come up small in Games 2 and 3, fighting foul trouble, playing self-consciously. He’d stunk up Minnesota’s Play-In game as well. And over the 48 hours from Thursday to late Saturday, had heard just about everything questioned, from his character to his long-term whereabouts (offseason trade rumors started percolating).
Then he drained a 3-pointer to start Game 4, drew a foul next time down and seemed to find the needed edge.
“Just a bunch of rage and trying to find ways to just dominate regardless of what they throw,” Towns said of his performance. “A triple-, quadruple-[team], coach comes on the court and guards me as well. I don’t care. Just find ways to put the ball in the bucket.”
Emotions sometimes have gotten Towns into trouble on the floor. But he found a winning way of just saying “No!” to the Grizzlies and slamming a door.
It was a 93-87 game through three quarters, with Towns’ night still to be defined. He was getting a breather as the fourth began, but a rag-tag lineup had coach Chris Finch bellowing “KAT!” down the bench just 99 seconds into the period.
From 98-96, Towns hit a running jumper, a one-legged step back from 15 feet and a majestic three from out top. He finished his 10-point run with a catch-and-shoot three that made it 108-104. And his final points of the night came with 4.4 seconds left, two free throws that enabled him and the building to breathe at 119-115.
“It’s just channeling my energy and my anger more to just positive energy,” he said, “and putting it to my family and just taking a chill pill and calming down,” Towns said. “Understanding next game there’s another chance, and after that another chance to go out there and show who I am.”
2. Who’s angry now? Memphis’ Jenkins about the refs
Already bringing the physicality, the Grizzlies dialed it up in Game 4 and got called on it – a lot. The officiating crew whistled them for 33 fouls, sending the Wolves to the line 40 times. The numbers the other way: 23 fouls on Minnesota and 25 free throws.
The difference in points generated: 31-19 in a long, intense, potentially pivotal postseason game. Four Memphis starters had two fouls each in the first quarter, with 12 on their starting five by halftime.
So Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins’ postgame comments were hot and direct. “One of the most poorly officiated games I’ve ever seen in my NBA career,” Jenkins said. “I’ve never seen a more inconsistent and arrogant officiated game. So I’ll take whatever hit’s [fine] coming my way, gotta protect our guys. We know we’ve got to get better, but from the get-go, it was foul, foul, foul, foul, foul, inconsistency.
“There was actually one play where a foul whistle was blown before contact was even made – it’s embarrassing. … I’m always going to look in the mirror and say, ‘How do we play better, how do we coach better.’ But I’m at a loss of words.”
Actually, he wasn’t. And neither were some of his band of Mad Men, whom Jenkins has described all series as playing angry.
“I don’t even want to talk about officiating,” forward Dillon Brooks said, before doing exactly that. “Like when I was growing up, when I was in the league the first three years, and I watched playoff basketball, there was barely any calls called. They let the players play, figure it out. I felt [tonight] like they just wanted to run the show. They wanted their name on TV for free – their names all over that TV, all three of them.”
Guard Ja Morant scanned the box score, reciting the Grizz starters’ fouls that totaled 25, including his four.
“[It] was terrible. I don’t even foul like that,” he said. “I’m right behind Coach. I’ll take mine [fine], too.”
For the record, Memphis has been cited for 99 fouls to Minnesota’s 111 through four games. It has shot 131 free throws to the Wolves’ 118.
3. They took the bat out of Morant’s hands
That’s right, bat. Not ball. The Wolves treated the explosive Memphis point guard the way a nervous baseball manager might treat Mike Trout or Juan Soto.
While watching Memphis swarm Towns with extra defenders, Finch came to embrace the tactic against Morant. Better to turn him into a passer – Morant had 15 assists in Game 4 – than let him slice and dice the Minnesota defense with his romps to the rim.
“It’s akin to an intentional walk at times,” Finch said. “If they’re going to put you on base, you got to go on base.”
The strategy might have been more lauded if Desmond Bane hadn’t picked up so much scoring slack – he had a game-high 34 points, hitting eight of his dozen 3-point attempts. But Morant was limited to 4-for-13 shooting and 11 points while facing double teams and traps.
“First two games, they pretty much stayed home to our shooters, allowing me to get downhill,” Morant said. “Now every time I come off [a screen], I’m seeing three bodies. Only thing I can do after that is just make the right play.”
Bane’s final 3-pointer meant nothing tangible, coming at the buzzer after Towns had pushed the lead to four. But it made a statement too, that after all Minnesota did right – and all those fouls – the Grizzlies only lost by one.
4. McLaughlin went from 0 to 16
As frustrating as that Game 3 twin-collapse had to be for his teammates, it was worse for backup guard Jordan McLaughlin. He never got on the floor, with Finch riding D’Angelo Russell and Patrick Beverly as his point guards in what wound up a crushing defeat. After the game, McLaughlin heeded team protocols and hit the treadmill for a solo workout.
“I control what I can control,” said McLaughlin. “I’m not able to put myself in the game.”
That fell to Finch, who saw how “gassed” Russell and Beverley were late in Game 4 and sent some minutes McLaughlin’s way. The result? Sixteen points in 14 minutes, four 3-pointers, pesky defensive help and a team-best plus-6.
“Man to the left of me is MVP of the game, for sure,” said Anthony Edwards, who shared the postgame podium with McLaughlin. “Jordan McLaughlin. Anything you ask me, that’s what I’m saying. Y’all might not want to ask me any more questions. Jordan McLaughlin. That’s my answer.”
5. Some Saturday night zaniness
A 9 p.m. CT tipoff was unusual enough. Adult beverages likely were flowing on a Saturday night more freely than usual given the late start, fueled a bit more by the MLB Twins game next door at Target Field at 3 p.m.
Things got wackier from there, with not one but two animal-rights protesters interrupting play in the third quarter. With similar disruptions in two previous games, Target Center security was on high alert, pouncing when two activists made their moves toward Wolves owner Glen Taylor and wife Becky at their courtside seats.
But wait, there was more: Timberwolves talismans Wally Szczerbiak and Troy Hudson, veterans of long-ago playoff forays, were seated in the front row, as was former late-night TV host Craig Kilborn, a rabid Wolves fans with Minnesota roots. The whole thing lasted 2:57, finishing at midnight.
Hopefully Games 5, 6 and possibly 7 in this series will pack enough drama without the extracurriculars.