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With $32M on the line and Timberwolves needing him more than ever, Karl-Anthony Towns coming into his own

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DETROIT – Karl-Anthony Towns unknowingly walked up on Anthony Tolliver getting interviewed about Towns in the Timberwolves’ locker room.

“Hey, what’s up, man,” Tolliver said. “I’m not talking about you or nothing.”

Towns laughed. Then, as Tolliver returned complimenting him, Towns realized Tolliver made more than a random joke.

“Wait,” Towns said. “Were you talking about me?”

Towns urged Tolliver to change topics – to Towns’ flaws, to Tolliver’s own 3-point shooting, to anything else. Towns even jokingly threatened to throw fruit at Tolliver.

This is the Towns who earlier this season resisted being labeled of one of Minnesota’s most important players. He’s prone to just trying to fit in.

But Towns has special talent. The Timberwolves need him to assert himself.

Hope of Towns co-starring with Andrew Wiggins, the reigning Rookie of Year and previous No. 1 pick when Towns got drafted No. 1, has nearly completely faded. Wiggins has stagnated (at best) since signing a max contract extension two years ago.

Jimmy Butler temporarily commandeered the scene in Minnesota. While Butler was carrying the Timberwolves to their first playoff appearance in 14 years last season, it made sense for Towns to defer. But Butler is gone, reportedly at Towns’ request (and definitely at Butler’s).

This team is now clearly Towns’ and Towns’ alone. He might finally be embracing it.

“There’s a lot on my shoulders, but good thing I’ve got broad shoulders,” Towns said.

In six games since a car crash he said could have killed him, Towns is averaging 34 points, 14 rebounds and four assists per game. Even for someone who has already established himself as a star, Towns might be turning the corner into superstardom.

The timing could be lucrative.

If Towns makes an All-NBA team this season, his upcoming extension will project to be worth $190 million over the next five years. If he misses the All-NBA teams an super-max eligibility, the extension projects to be worth $158 million – $32 million less.

Will Towns get one of three All-NBA center spots?

He appears to be in a six-man race with the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, 76ers’ Joel Embiid, Jazz’s Rudy Gobert and Magic’s Nikola Vucevic. Here’s how they compare in points, rebounds assists, blocks and steals per game and PER, win shares and real plus-minus:

Player PPG RPG APG BPG SPG PER WS RPM
Nikola Jokic 20.5 10.8 7.7 0.6 1.4 26.9 9.9 6.5
Anthony Davis 26.8 12.3 4.0 2.5 1.6 30.5 9.4 6.1
Joel Embiid 27.3 13.5 3.5 1.9 0.6 25.4 7.2 4.3
Rudy Gobert 15.5 12.9 2.1 2.2 0.8 24.3 11.0 4.6
Karl-Anthony Towns 24.2 12.2 3.3 1.7 0.9 26.6 9.2 4.3
Nikola Vucevic 20.6 12.0 3.9 1.2 1.0 26.0 8.3 5.5

Towns will have a tough time catching Jokic, who will get onto many MVP ballots.

Davis has already missed 16 games and will receive only limited minutes the rest of the season. The negative effects of his trade request on New Orleans should count against him. But his incredible production while on the court should also matter.

Embiid has missed 11 games and counting. How quickly and how well he returns from his knee injury will swing his candidacy.

Gobert wasn’t even an All-Star, but that was determined by Western Conference coaches, not the media who’ll pick All-NBA. Gobert’s All-Star snub generated a lot of publicity that might even help his All-NBA case. Defensive-minded players like him also tend to fare better with All-NBA than All-Star, because voters are also considering Defensive Player of the Year at the end of the season. Gobert is a leading candidate for that award.

Vucevic is in his first season playing on this level. If nothing else, there will be no voter fatigue with him.

Other players like LaMarcus Aldridge, Brook Lopez, Al Horford and Andre Drummond could also get All-NBA votes. In a close race, those could determine who actually lands on the All-NBA teams.

At minimum, Towns’ All-NBA window is open.

Towns earning the pay bump would further squeeze a team with at least a couple players on undesirable contracts – Wiggins (four years, $122,242,800 remaining), Gorgui Dieng (two years, $33,516,853 remaining) and arguably Jeff Teague (one year, $19 million player option remaining). But Towns playing well down the stretch would carry its own value.

“Karl deserves to be an All-NBA player,” Timberwolves interim coach Ryan Saunders said.

By traditional big-man standards, Towns – averaging 24 points and 12 rebounds per game – looks like a lock. But he knows better.

In the previous 40 years, 25 players averaged 24-12 (minimum: 50 games). Only one didn’t make an All-NBA team – Towns in 2017.

In a system that awards five points for a first-team vote, three points for a second-team vote and one point for a third-team vote, Towns landed just four voting points behind DeAndre Jordan for third-team center. If Towns had made All-NBA that season, he would have already clinched super-max eligibility. Nothing would have been on the line this season.

Towns said he thought he’d make All-NBA in 2017.

“It was a learning experience,” said Towns, who declined to elaborate on what he learned.

So many learning experiences lie ahead for Towns, who’s just 23. He has looked sharper on defense – by far his biggest deficiency – and improved passing out of double-teams. But there’s so much more room to grow. A reason Minnesota is just 30-35 is Towns’ defensive shortcomings.

Still, he brings so much offensively. Towns is the only player making 70% of his shots at the rim and 40% of his 3-pointers (minimum: 100 attempts each). He makes it look easy.

“He’s so talented,” Timberwolves forward Taj Gibson said. “There’s nothing in this league, in the game of basketball, that I doubt him in.”

Towns has 44.1 career win shares. Since Towns entered the NBA in 2015, only four players – James Harden (54.9), Stephen Curry (47.3), LeBron James (46.9) and Kevin Durant (46.0) – have produced more win shares. But Towns is way younger than those four.

Here’s everyone who played in the NBA the last four seasons, sorted by age this season and win shares over the last four seasons. Harden, Curry, LeBron, Durant (who’s hiding behind Curry) and Towns are pictured:

image

Russell Westbrook recently trash-talked Towns during a game: “Get to the f—ing playoffs before you speak to me.” The diss was particularly cruel because the Timberwolves made the playoffs last year. But they got rolled by the Rockets in five games in the first round, Towns fading into the background of the series. It was quite forgettable.

There’s still plenty of time for Towns to make a bigger impact. Though further advancement might require roster upgrades around him, he has the tools to eventually lead the Timberwolves back into the playoffs and make a lasting impression.

Will he embrace that challenge and the accompanying spotlight or shirk the responsibility?

“He wants it,” Tolliver said. “And you can’t really say that about everybody. Some guys, they might say they want it, but their actions don’t say it. So, I think that he’s kind of a rare breed.”

Minnesota owner says interim coach Ryan Saunders ‘has a good chance’ to get job full-time

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The Minnesota Timberwolves did not suddenly turn a corner after coach and GM Tom Thibodeau was let go midseason.

The Timberwolves have gone 10-12 under interim coach Ryan Saunders, although they have looked better in recent weeks. In their last 10 games the Timberwolves have a top-10 offense in the league, and since the All-Star break Karl-Anthony Towns put up big numbers until a car accident sidelined him. All of that is not enough to get Minnesota in the playoffs this year, but there is some reason for optimism going forward.

Owner Glen Taylor likes what he’s seen out of Saunders and thinks the youngest coach in the NBA could keep his job after the season. Here is what Taylor told Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune.

“I think he has a good chance [to get the job full-time],” Taylor said. “It’s like everything, we’re going to wait until we play out these last 20-some games and I think we’ll know and he’ll know at that time if it works out. But he is off to a good start.

“I would just say I really like him as a person. I have known him since he was a young man, and I am really pleased with how he is starting out coaching this team.”

To me, it’s been challenging to judge just how good a job Saunders is doing. There isn’t enough hard evidence to swing a job review one way or the other yet.

It’s always difficult to judge an interim coach because there are only so many changes one can make midseason. In Minnesota’s case, you need to throw in a rash of injuries that muddy the picture —  Robert Covington, Tyus Jones, Jeff Teague, and Derrick Rose have all missed time for Saunders, and now Towns is in that mix as well. On the upside, players seem to play hard for him, but the team isn’t winning at a different pace than it did for Thibodeau. Towns had a good stretch of games (before the concussion). Andrew Wiggins has been up-and-down for Saunders, but he is up and down for everyone, that’s just Wiggins.

The other big question in all this: Who will be the general manager next season? Scott Layden is in that role now and there have not been rumblings of the Timberwolves contacting other teams to talk about potential candidates. Layden may keep the job, but whoever is in that chair should get to choose their coach.

Saunders may get to keep the job because the owner really likes him “as a person.” It’s just hard to tell if that will be the best thing for Minnesota going forward.

Trae Young first rookie with consecutive 35-point games since Allen Iverson (video)

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ATLANTA (AP) — Trae Young had 36 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds in the Atlanta Hawks’ 131-123 in overtime win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night.

Young, who scored 36 points against the Rockets on Monday, became the first rookie with consecutive 35-point games since Allen Iverson in 1997.

John Collins scored 18 points of his 34 points in the fourth quarter as Atlanta, which trailed by 13 points late in the third period, rallied to force the extra period.

Karl-Anthony Towns led the Timberwolves with 37 points and 17 rebounds. Andrew Wiggins had 21 points.

DeAndre Bembry scored six of his 16 points in overtime for Atlanta.

Vice Carter made a 3-pointer to open the overtime period. Back-to-back baskets from Bembry gave Atlanta a 125-118 lead.

Following a timeout, Towns had a jam and a 3-pointer – his season-high fifth of the game. Bembry, who had only 10 points through regulation, answered with his third basket of the extra period, giving the Hawks a 127-123 advantage.

Each team missed last-second shots in regulation.

After Young’s basket tied it at 118, Derrick Rose missed a short jumper for Minnesota. Atlanta called timeout with 0.5 seconds remaining. Young made a jumper off the inbounds pass from Carter, but a video review confirmed the shot came after the buzzer.

It was a damaging loss for Minnesota, which began the night three games behind eighth-place San Antonio in the Western Conference playoff race.

The Timberwolves took a big lead of 13 points at 94-81 late in the third and led 95-86 entering the fourth period. Atlanta pulled even at 102 and again at 114, but each time it couldn’t take the lead.

Young, the rookie who scored a career-high 36 points in a loss at Houston on Monday night, stayed hot with 20 first-half points. Young had help; every Atlanta starter had scored by the time the Hawks led 19-10.

Josh Okogie, the Timberwolves’ rookie from Georgia Tech, had 15 points in his return to Atlanta.

Timberwolves point guard Jeff Teague missed his second straight game with a sore left knee. Tyus Jones again filled in as the starter.

TIP-INS

Timberwolves: F Luol Deng did not return after leaving with a sore left Achilles in the first half. … F Robert Covington was sent to G League Iowa as he moves closer to his return from a bone bruise on his right knee. He has missed 23 consecutive games since suffering the injury on Dec. 31. Covington is expected to practice only at Iowa while the Timberwolves are on the road. … F Cameron Reynolds was signed to a 10-day contract.

Hawks: Dewayne Dedmon had seven points and 10 rebounds before fouling out with 3:06 remaining. … Kent Bazemore‘s frustration grew as he missed each of his 12 shots through three quarters. He complained when no foul was called on a miss late in the period and drew a technical foul. He missed two shots – a 3-pointer and a layup – on Atlanta’s next possession and didn’t attempt another shot.

UP NEXT

Timberwolves: Continue three-game trip at Indiana on Thursday night.

Hawks: Host Chicago on Sunday.

Three Things to Know: Kerr, Warriors start vacation early, Lillard takes advantage in win

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Steve Kerr, Warriors start vacation early; Damian Lillard, Blazers take advantage in a victory. NBA players generally treat the last game before the All-Star break the way you treat your last day at work/school before vacation — they have already checked out mentally. There was plenty of that with the Warriors heading into Wednesday night — DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston were all given the night off.

Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant played but started their vacation a quarter early. Both were brilliant through the first three: Durant had 16 points in the first quarter and after three had 32 points on 12-of-17 shooting; Curry led the Warriors third quarter push with 18 points in the frame on his way to 32 points on 24 shots. However, both of them were completely scoreless in the fourth.

The, after a controversial flagrant foul call on Draymond Green in the fourth, Steve Kerr decided to start his vacation early and got ejected.

Kerr will be writing a check to the NBA for that outburst. The league can’t let that slide. However, Kerr is right about the call — Green was in no way deserving of a flagrant. Collins was going in for a dunk, Green fouled him to stop it, but the definition of a flagrant foul is “unnecessary and/or excessive contact,” and you’re not going to convince me there was any of that. I know the league wants to protect players and not allow contact to the head, but there was very little if any and it was incidental. Even Zach Collins (the guy fouled) was surprised by the call. That was a common foul.

Portland owned the fourth 35-12 to get the win — credit the Blazers for showing up ready to play on getaway day. It was evident back in the second quarter when Maurice Harkless out-hustled five Warriors down the court for a transition dunk. It was evident in the play of a bench unit that has been up and down this season but brought it in this one, especially in the fourth, when Jake Layman had 12 of his 17 of the night and Rodney Hood pitched in five.

Lillard finished the game with 29 points on 9-of-15 shooting, the Warriors simply had no answer.

It was a good day for the Trail Blazers off the court, too — they added Enes Kanter for the stretch run off the buyout market. Kanter will provide some more scoring punch off the bench to go with Zach Collins (and behind Jusuf Nurkic), the Turkish star knows how to get buckets. He’s of limited help (if any) once the rotations shrink in the postseason because he gets exposed on defense, but Kanter will make sure the Blazers are well positioned entering the postseason.

2) James Harden extends his scoring streak to 31 to tie Wilt Chamberlain, but it’s not enough to get Houston the win. James Harden is an MVP candidate because he is willing the Rockets into the postseason.

Wednesday night he scored 42 points against the Timberwolves, extending his streak of 30+ point games to 31, tying the legendary Wilt Chamberlain for the second longest such streak ever. Remember when Harden started this streak the Rockets were a below .500 team sitting at 13th in the West, now they are fifth.

But Harden can only do so much. Or, more accurately, Harden can only do so much to cover up the putrid Houston defense. Especially with Clint Capela out. Houston lost to Minnesota 121-111 on Wednesday because they cannot get stops — Jeff Teague had 27 points on 16 shots, Karl-Anthony Towns had 25 points on 18 shots, and as a team the Timberwolves had an offensive rating of 129. Minnesota got the shots in wanted and knocked them down all game.

Plus, Minnesota made some defensive plays.

That’s what separates this Rockets team from a season ago (that and Chris Paul is still good but looks like he has lost a step). Last year’s Rockets team was a threat to the Warriors because of their defense, maybe that team can flip the switch and come back for the playoffs, but after 57 games it looks like this is who the Rockets are. And that’s not going to be good enough.

3) Nets win triple-overtime thriller thanks to DeMarre Carroll three, then D’Angelo Russell sinking dagger. The most entertaining game of the night happened in Cleveland. Which is why you didn’t watch it. But we’ve got the highlights of overtime for you, complete with DeMarre Carroll forcing triple overtime with a shot at the buzzer, then D'Angelo Russell sealing the win with the last of his 36 points on the night. There are some nice Collin Sexton highlights in there as well.

BONUS Thing To Know: Kevin Knox had the ridiculous poster dunk on Ben Simmons. Damn, this is just nasty.

Three Things to Know: On arctic cold night, Karl-Anthony Towns was hot when it mattered

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) On an arctic cold night, Karl-Anthony Towns was hot when it mattered and hits game-winner for Timberwolves. It was a frigid 24-hours in Minnesota, where the polar vortex slowed down or stopped everything. Nobody was moving fast.

That includes the Timberwolves and Grizzlies, even though everything was warm and relatively toasty inside the Target Center Wednesday night. In a game between two teams that thought they would have much better records than they do at this point in the season — two teams outside the playoffs looking in — nobody seemed to be moving fast or making big plays. These are two teams that couldn’t break the 100-point barrier even in overtime. It was a slog of a game.

At least until Karl-Anthony Towns sank the game-winner in overtime, pulling down an offensive rebound over Marc Gasol off an errant Andrew Wiggins jumper, then draining the baseline fadeaway to send everyone in Minnesota out into the cold happy.

It wasn’t a good game from Towns, he was 7-of-17 shooting and once again got two quick fouls and had to sit for long stretches. But he made the play when it matters, and that should count for something even if it wasn’t his best work.

Heading into the Feb. 7 trade deadline we know where the Grizzlies stand — Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and anyone else not named Jaren Jackson Jr. is available via trade. Minnesota is probably trying to convince itself it is just three games back of the Clippers for the eight seed and can make a playoff push, but the smart move might be to see if a team looking for depth (hello Philadelphia) would have interest in Anthony Tolliver, Jarryd Bayless, or Jeff Teague in exchange for picks/young players.

Of course, with the Timberwolves looking at an organizational shake-up — who will be coach and GM next season? — bold moves may not be on the table in the short term.

2) Portland is a force at home, blow out red-hot Jazz. Utah had won 9-of-10 and came into the Moda Center (it will always be the Rose Garden to me) as hot as any team in the league.

Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and the Trail Blazers ran the Jazz out of the building, 132-105.

Portland at home is a different team — 22-7, vs. 10-13 on the road — with a +8.5 net rating. It’s not one end of the floor, the Blazers’ offense is 6.6 per 100 possessions better at home, their defense improves by 5.8 per 100. Portland at home plays like an elite team (fifth best net rating at home in the NBA).

McCollum came out hot against the Jazz and had 20 in the first quarter, then Lillard came on in the second scoring 15 of his 36. Lillard was knocking down everything.

It was impressive, Lillard is an All-Star (he’s a lock to be named a reserve tonight) and Portland is a playoff team. The only concern for the Trail Blazers: Starting Sunday they have 9-of-11 on the road.

3) Awkward: Anthony Davis watches from the bench as Nuggets knock off Pelicans. Anthony Davis’ fractured finger had him in street clothes on Wednesday night, he was never going to play against the Denver Nuggets regardless.

But this was New Orleans’ first home game since Davis’ agent informed the Pelicans the soon-to-be All-Star would not re-sign with the team and wanted to be traded. That made things weird — he was scrubbed from the pre-game hype video (which features every other Pelican player). It was a move made by the franchise because it would have been awkward to have fans in the arena booing a hype video.

Davis also heard a small smattering of boos when he walked to the bench after the game started to cheer on his — for now at least — teammates. By the fourth quarter, Davis was back in the locker room.

Mostly though, Davis was ignored inside the arena. That’s likely to continue. The Pelicans have not officially decided if he should just sit out until a trade is made — which is more and more looking like it would be for the rest of the season, the Pelicans do not want to deal with the Lakers and are not feeling the pressure to get a deal done before the Feb. 7 trade deadline — but likely that is what will happen. Davis and the Pelicans don’t want to risk him getting hurt if they are going to trade him, he would just be a distraction to the team, and since they are missing the playoffs the Pelicans should make an effort to tank and get a better draft position anyway.

The Nuggets went on to beat the Pelicans 105-99. Nikola Jokic had a triple-double of 20 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists in the win.