Josh Okogie

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Birthday boy Karl-Anthony Towns giving Timberwolves even more reason to celebrate

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Tom Thibodeau is gone. Jimmy Butler is gone. Karl-Anthony Towns has taken greater ownership with the Timberwolves.

Towns organizes team-building activities like Topgolf and a halloween party. Towns gives the pump-up speech before each game. Towns communicates more on the floor.

That’s why, Towns said, he didn’t even realize his birthday was approaching until his parents recently reminded him.

“I get caught up in work,” Towns said.

Whether or not Towns actually needed the reminder, let alone for such a flattering reason, his birthday – which is today – got him reflecting. He felt old.

So, Towns mentioned to Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders that his birthday was around the corner. Saunders had the opposite realization: Towns is turning 24 today. Just 24!

“He’s still young,” Saunders said. “As a coach, that gets me excited.”

Towns is one of the NBA’s special talents – a proven star with room to improve. Picking up the momentum he built last season, Towns appears to be really coming into his own this year.

The center is posting his usual impressive numbers (25.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game), but his new attitude has stolen the show. He fought Joel Embiid and went face-to-face with Rudy Gay.

Don’t let the antics completely overshadow an impressive basketball story, though. Towns has led Minnesota to a surprising 7-4 start by revamping his game. Most of his shots are coming from beyond the arc, and his 4.2 assists per game are a career high.

By creating spacing and keeping the ball moving, Towns is contributing to a style that lifts all the Timberwolves. Perhaps, nobody has benefited more than Andrew Wiggins, who’s fitting right into this modern look.

The transformation is only the latest chapter for Towns, whose reputation has fluctuated significantly throughout his five-year career. This might explain why he already feels so old:

Minnesota drafted Towns No. 1 in 2015, and he won Rookie of the Year. In the 2016 and 2017 NBA general-manager survey, a plurality of voting executives picked Towns as the player they’d most like to start a team with. In the 2017 survey, Towns also received the most votes for league’s best center (even while getting a couple votes as league’s best power forward).

On paper, Towns delivered. He made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams the following season. He also reached the playoffs for the first time.

But Thibodeau and Butler butted heads with Towns, who never showed the hard edge those former Bulls tried to coax from him. After trading Butler, Minnesota went right back to losing.

In the 2018 and 2019 surveys, no general manager picked Towns to start a team with. Only a few picked him as best center.

Now, the landscape has shifted again. Anthony Davis spends a lot of time at power forward. Joel Embiid doesn’t stay as healthy. Nikola Jokic has fallen way off.

Towns is the early frontrunner for All-NBA first-team center.

“Everybody takes big steps in their growth at different times,” Saunders said, “and I think we’re seeing that from Karl.”

Towns can’t take anything for granted, and neither can the Timberwolves. But he at least has a good chance for vindication after his preseason playoff talk.

The way Towns has implemented more 3-point shooting into his game is particularly impressive. His 9.0 attempts per game lead NBA bigs, and he’s converting more than 40%. But floating on the perimeter was once a sign Towns was being too passive. Now, Towns is finding the right balance between spotting up beyond the arc and playing aggressively.

That’s in part his own mentality changing, in part his teammates’ mentality changing. Gone are the days when Towns could be an afterthought outside the paint.

“The ball is always going to find KAT,” Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie said. “He’s the center of our offense.”

Towns’ defensive intensity still comes and goes. He still must prove himself in the playoffs, and that usually requires trials and tribulations he hasn’t yet experienced.

But at age 24, Towns is finally/already showing something special.

Three Things to Know: Kyrie Irving returns home, drops 50, stumbles on game winner

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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) Emotional Kyrie Irving returns home, drops 50, but stumbles on the game winner. Kyrie Irving got what he wanted, and it’s easy to tell he is happy to be back in the place he considers home, New York.

You could see it in the way he got emotional speaking to the fans before the game.

You could also see it in the way he played in the season opener — his 50 points were the most ever by a player in his debut with a new team. (Your trivia answer, it had been Kiki Vandeweghe with 47 points for the Trail Blazers back in 1984.)

Irving was comfortable and aggressive, shooting threes if he got any space at all (and hitting 7-of-14 from deep) plus finishing when he got to the rim (8-of-11). The crowd was in his corner, roaring approval with every shot. Irving took what the defense gave him and also had seven assists (and eight rebounds).

The question about this year’s Nets has never been “can Irving get them buckets?” Of course he can. The question has been, “can the rest of the team rise up to his level?” There, the answer was spotty on Wednesday night. The best evidence of this, Caris LeVert had 20 points, but it took him 19 shots to get there and he had five turnovers.

Brooklyn took the lead with and 11-4 run late — a rainbow three from Irving with 1:16 left had them up 115-112 — but as he had done all night Karl-Anthony Towns took charge for the Timberwolves. KAT finished the night with 36 points and 14 rebounds.

The game went to overtime, where it went back-and-forth until the Nets got the ball with 11 seconds left down one. It was time for a storybook ending for Irving, the Nets went 1-4 flat and let Irving iso for the win…

And he slipped.

Irving still got off a surprisingly good look, it just did not fall. Notice that Irving’s team ran over to pick him up.

It’s still the kind of game the Nets can be optimistic about. The team is still coming together around Irving, the role players will have better nights, and they were in it to the end against a good team.

For a Minnesota team with playoff aspirations in a stacked West, this is the kind of road win they need. Towns was all-world, and he has to do that all season. But it was more than that. Treveon Graham started and made some impressive hustle plays, Josh Okogie was gritty, Robert Covington played well. And as for Andrew Wiggins, the Timberwolves were simply better when he sat most of the night, but when he attacked took things happened and he did that a couple of times in overtime. It’s a good start to the season for Ryan Saunders and company.

2) Bradley Beal was ejected, and the league should rescind this. Luka Doncic was on fire — 34 points on 12-of-19 shooting on the night, 4-of-9 from three, plus he had 9 boards. If Washington was going to have any chance of coming back in the fourth quarter and beating Dallas, it had to slow down Doncic.

Bradley Beal took on the challenge. He was physical, he was aggressive, he was competitive, and he was ejected on a poor couple of calls. First, there was an unnecessary double-technical, and when Beal waved his arm at the referee — not in a threatening way, they were 20 feet apart at least, this was more dismissive — the official was thin-skinned and tossed Beal.

Come on now. It’s late in a chippy game, but there was zero need for the first double technical, and the ejection — with just a minute to go in the game — was a pointless exercise in power.

Doncic gave Beal a hug before he left the court — Doncic got this was just two guys competing.

All Beal’s defensive efforts didn’t work, Dallas picked up a quality 108-100 win to start the season. Kristaps Porzingis played well with 23 points on 16 shots, and his alley-oop sealed the game.

3) Markelle Fultz looked pretty good for Orlando. It’s one game against a team lacking any rim protection to speak of, but for Markelle Fultz this was a good night.

Fultz finished with 12 points on 6-of-12 shooting, plus six assists. His three wasn’t falling, but it didn’t matter because he was aggressive attacking the rim and the smaller Cavaliers had no answer. He had three nice drives out of the right corner, but this ended up being his best play of the night.

It’s just one game, but that was as good a start for Fultz as Orlando could have hoped. By the way, the Magic beat the Cavaliers 94-85.

Karl-Anthony Towns on Timberwolves: “It’s fine. Keep sleeping on us.”

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The bottom half of the Western Conference is going to a tight race going into late March and April. Good teams — San Antonio, Dallas, Sacramento, New Orleans — could all be battling for one, maybe a couple of playoff spots (especially if an expected playoff team falls back to the pack).

Karl-Anthony Towns says don’t leave Minnesota out of that mix.

Towns believes that nationally fans and the media are sleeping on the Timberwolves — which is true — and he told Marc Spears of The Undefeated that would be a mistake.

“Everyone always sleeps on people in Minnesota because they don’t hear our name a lot,” Towns, who was named a 2019 NBA Western Conference All-Star, told The Undefeated. “That’s fine. That’s cool. We are going to come from the underground and just find ourselves in the playoffs if we continue to do what we’re doing. …

“It’s fine. Keep sleeping on us.”

The Timberwolves made the playoffs two seasons ago, Jimmy Butler‘s first with the team. Last season, after Butler torpedoed the squad in training camp with a public and messy trade demand, Minnesota never recovered (and Tom Thibodeau lost his job).

If Minnesota is going to make the playoffs Towns is going to have to take a step forward, being more of a facilitator on offense (coach Ryan Saunders needs to get him high-post touches) and more consistent on defense. But that is just the start. Robert Covington, Minnesota’s second-best player, has to lead an improved defense. Andrew Wiggins has to do more than get empty-calorie points (18.1 per game last season), and he’s got to be more efficient.  Josh Okogie needs to take a step forward and rookie Jarrett Culver must contribute. Jeff Teague, Gorgui Dieng, and Jordan Bell all need to fill their roles.

Which is a lot of things that need go right, leading to a lot of that sleeping on the Timberwolves.

It’s up to Towns and company to prove us all wrong.

Mike D’Antoni on James Harden: ‘His patented move is not a travel’

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United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously uttered the phrase, “I know it when I see it” when describing his threshold for obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio. First spoken in 1964, Potter’s expression has been used colloquially across myriad applications ever since.

And for Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni, he just doesn’t see it.

Speaking to a group of reporters this week, D’Antoni said that the NBA has made it abundantly clear that James Harden‘s patented step-back move is not a travel according to the new, stricter guidelines.

D’Antoni went on to say that several other items — including the players lifting their back foot when beginning a dribble drive — would be looked at with more scrutiny, but Harden’s move would not.

Via ESPN:

[The NBA] made a point to tell every head coach that that is is not traveling. And it’s not travelling! Hopefully coaches will quit complaining and hopefully you guys in the news will understand that’s not traveling.

His patented move is not a travel.

Harden’s move, which, you know, is absolutely a travel by the spirit of the rule, will apparently not be judged as such. Of course, there are contextual factors for why he will be refereed this way, but someone like Josh Okogie will not. Mostly it’s that Harden is a former MVP, and a deadly scorer outside of anything he nets with ticky-tack dribble moves. He’s a star, a franchise cornerstone, and the NBA is not in the business of handicapping its most marketable commodities.

So D’Antoni will go on cheerleading for a convenient free pass given to Harden as his “gather step” establishes two pivot feet on his way to 400 threes this season. The rest of us will roll our eyes at the legacy of one of the most electrifying scorers in league history continuing to be marred by remarks about free throws and 3-pointers.

Pro sports leagues keep trying to legislate their games into stasis; a perfect, consumer-friendly version of The Thing That Makes Us Money. Despite rule changes, and fan confusion about things like pass interference, or what constitutes a catch, or traveling, the truth is the truth.

The NBA has decided to better define a travel, and Harden’s gather move is outside that explanation. But that doesn’t really matter, because we know it when we see it.

Minnesota’s Gersson Rosas says Andrew Wiggins must be ‘main contributor’ to T-wolves

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Last season in Minnesota — with Jimmy Butler torpedoing the team and ending the Tom Thibodeau era — was pretty much the figurative definition of a train wreck.

Out of that wreckage, the Timberwolves think they found some positives. Ryan Sunders was thrown into the fire as a young coach but bonded with Karl-Anthony Towns. Robert Covington sparked the defense before his injury. Josh Okogie emerged as a player. This summer the team drafted a player with a lot of potential in Jarrett Culver.

Minnesota also brought in the aggressive Gersson Rosas out of Houston to take over as team president and start reshaping the franchise into one that can live up to the promise of Towns’ potential. For that to start to happen, meaning a return to the playoffs, Rosas pointed to a couple of things needing to go right this season. First and foremost, they need more — and more consistency — out of Andrew Wiggins. Via Timberwolves writer/podcaster Dane Moore.

Most Timberwolves fans, and the rest of the league, have moved on from Wiggins, who has four years, $122 million left on his max contract. While he averaged 18.1 points per game last season, he doesn’t get those buckets efficiently nor consistently, and the result is an average/slightly below-average wing whose contract is an anchor on the franchise. We’ve learned no contract is untradable in the NBA, but this is as close to that line as it gets — the sweeteners Minnesota would have to throw in right now make a deal are prohibitive.

The only thing Minnesota can hope for is that in year six Wiggins takes some steps forward he did not take in the last five. Maybe continuity helps, but we’re all going to need to see it before we believe it.

The other thing Rosas said Minnesota needs: More consistent defense from Towns.

Saunders seemed to connect with Towns and got him to defend, and Covington played MIC linebacker calling out coverages and getting guys in position before his injury. Rosas said Covington would be good to go at the start of the season, if so that gives the Timberwolves real hope that the defense will improve.

Whether all of that will be enough to get them into the playoffs in a deep West is another question, but at least Minnesota seems to be moving in the right direction now.