Timberwolves give in to their human nature in season-opening loss to Raptors

TORONTO — One of the most significant hurdles that the Minnesota Timberwolves will have to overcome if they are to deliver on their lofty expectations for this season has very little to do with their oft-debated two-big lineup. It doesn’t have to do with running back in transition or fouling less often, though those areas certainly need to be addressed.

As Kyle Anderson finished putting his shirt on in front of his locker after the Timberwolves’ 97-94 loss to the Toronto Raptors in the season opener on Wednesday night, the heady veteran paused for a second before laying out an undeniable truth about this team’s need to fight human nature.

“There’s two sides to this. Everybody wants to be invested in the team. It’s also a business,” Anderson said. “Guys gotta feed their families. Maybe we were caught in between.”

After a promising, undefeated preseason that was filled with ball movement, connectivity and unselfish play, the Timberwolves gave in to their old demons when the real lights turned on. An offense that hummed and shredded opponents in the run-up to the opener was bogged down by over-dribbling, poor shot selection and even worse decision-making.

Anthony Edwards scored 26 points but made just 8 of 27 shots.  Many of those misses came on wild drives to the basket against multiple defenders or off-balance, high-degree-of-difficulty jumpers in isolation.

Karl-Anthony Towns was just 8 of 25 from the field and missed 8 of 10 3-pointers. He also turned the ball over a team-leading four times, once on one of those ill-advised, over-the-shoulder passes he has a habit of breaking out a little too often.

The Timberwolves shot 34 percent from the field, their lowest mark since Nov. 4, 2018. But it wasn’t that the shots didn’t go in as much as the ugly manner in which they took them. Everything felt forced. Nothing came easy. The Raptors are a tough and physical defensive group that makes things difficult with their versatility and length, but the Timberwolves played right into their hands by taking the air out of the ball and flinging shots from bad angles that were well-contested.

It was exactly what coach Chris Finch was worried about. In the days leading up to the game, and even in his pregame media address 90 minutes before tipoff, Finch wondered aloud if the beautiful game the Wolves played in the preseason would carry over to the regular season.

“A lot of times when the lights come on and they start counting things for real, the ball tends to get a little stickier than it does in the preseason,” Finch cautioned before the game.

A piece of taffy in your teeth can get a little sticky. The double-sided tape you use to hang a picture on a wall is a little sticky. What the Timberwolves did on Wednesday night in the half court was on an entirely different level. They had seven assists in the first half, constantly eschewing making the easy pass to chuck up a head-scratching shot. As the wheels spun in the mud, each player seemed to take it upon himself to get the offense going with disastrous results.

“Started with me not moving the ball,” Edwards said. “I don’t know what I was doing tonight, but I’ll get back to it. We’ll be all right.”

Edwards was terrific in the first quarter. The Wolves got off to a slow start, missing their first four shots and falling behind 6-0. That’s when Edwards asserted himself, carrying Minnesota’s offense through the first quarter. He scored their first 10 points and 12 of their 25 in the period, looking every bit the player that so many expect to make another leap to superstardom this season.

He also made a smart, well-timed pass to Rudy Gobert for a dunk during a flurry of offense that seemed to be piggybacking off of his star turn with Team USA in the FIBA World Cup.

It appears that the fast start was the worst thing that could happen for the Wolves. Edwards has been the recipient of considerable and understandable hype heading into his fourth season. He signed a max contract extension in July, was the leader of Team USA in August, unveiled his signature shoe for Adidas in September and now is expected to be the leader of a team with aspirations of a playoff run at 22 years old. How he handles all of that attention and expectation will be key to the Wolves’ chances this season. It may have got the best of him on opening night when he got rolling early.

“Once I did that, I just kept that mindset and didn’t get back to finding my teammates,” Edwards said. “That carried over to the second half. It was my fault for sure. I blame myself.”

One thing Edwards has shown so far in his young career is self-awareness. He takes coaching and feedback well. When he recognizes he has erred, he works to correct it and usually comes back better for it. He remains a young player who still has a lot to learn, and he will.

But some of their more experienced players struggled with decision-making and shooting as well. Shake Milton and Nickeil Alexander-Walker combined to shoot 1 of 10 from the field, Naz Reid was quiet with 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting and even Mike Conley (11 points, three assists) was outplayed by Wolves killer Dennis Schröder, who had 22 points and seven assists.

Towns turns 28 in a few weeks and just started his ninth season in the NBA. Yet there were times on Wednesday that he looked so much younger. In the third quarter, he pump-faked, got into the lane and then let a floater go that was impossible to tell if it was a shot or a pass to Gobert. It led to a runout from Schröder. Earlier in the quarter, he missed a layup that led to another fastbreak score for the Raptors, who ripped the Wolves in transition to the tune of a 34-12 advantage.

So many turnovers and missed shots led to breakouts for the Raptors, an ugly reminder of how the Wolves got their doors blown off in the early going last season.

“Everyone wants to win for each other, so we were trying to make the winning play in an aggressive manner and it just didn’t happen today,” Towns said. “It’s OK. Good film. Move on to the next one, it’s Game 1.”

There were plenty of good things on which to build. The Wolves’ half-court defense was exceptional for most of the game, including a string of three straight stops from Towns at the rim that helped them jump in front at the end of the third quarter. They outrebounded Toronto 62-47, a drubbing that came after they focused much of their efforts in the preseason and training camp on becoming a better rebounding team.

“We expected to do what we did in the half-court defense, but our challenge is to continue to run up and down with these teams because that’s what teams are going to try to do,” Conley said. “They’re going to try and push the tempo, and get to the paint before we get our defense set. We’ll have to keep working on it.”

Edwards (26 points and a career-high-tying 14 rebounds), Towns (19 and 10) and Gobert (15 and 13) posted double-doubles in the same regular season game for the first time as teammates. They also did it in the Play-In Tournament win over Oklahoma City last season. It appeared that Towns and Gobert both were at their best when they were on the floor as centers, though, so getting them to click while sharing the floor will be important going forward.

“We did a lot of things that we set out to do,” Finch said. “Decision-making on offense was the story of the game.”

No one was panicking after the game. There was some frustration in the locker room, but also perspective. Jaden McDaniels did not play while he ramps back up from his calf injury and could be ready to go by the time the Wolves host the Miami Heat on Saturday. Had they made just two more shots on a horrendous shooting night, they survive in a place they have not won since 2004. There will probably be a few nights going forward where Towns is 2 of 10 from 3 in the same game that Edwards is 4 of 20 from 2.

The challenge going forward for the Timberwolves is to show that this sluggish performance, and not the slick offense we saw in the preseason, was the anomaly.

“It’s cool. We just gotta buy into each other and trust each other, make the right play, make the right pass and go from there,” Anderson said. “We’ll be OK.”

(Photo of Precious Achiuwa: Vaughn Ridley / NBAE via Getty Images)

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