‘We believe in ourselves’: These wolves are not surprised by their fiery start.

The Athletic

Maybe Rudy Gobert is right.

Perhaps, as the Minnesota Timberwolves big man insisted during our interview about his team’s surprising start last week, we should have seen it all coming.

9-3 start, best for first in the West (in points percentage) and one and a half games behind the Boston Celtics for the league’s best record. The defense, which has been the league’s weakest this season, has recently moved up to second in passing defense (the Colts were 10th last season). League’s sixth-best net rating. More importantly, the consensus in the locker room that didn’t appear to be necessary last season.

“I think people on the outside don’t see what’s going on with our team,” Gobert said. It is a fact that we do not give up. The second half of the schedule was tough last year, but we kept fighting and we were going to make it to the playoffs. Then came another tribulation.”

He ever did. This, coupled with the curious way in which they first came together, is why there is so much skepticism surrounding their team.

It was a roster construction that confused many, with three centers — Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and Nazz Reed — slated to make a combined $90 million this offseason. The chemistry seemed to be out early, with young phenom Anthony Edwards struggling to find ways to make all that volume fly.

Then there were the fireworks at the end of last season, when Gobert punched teammate Kyle Anderson in the chest during a play-in game (an overtime loss to the Lakers) in the regular-season finale. As if that wasn’t enough of a bad night at the office, their best point guard, Jaden McDaniel, was also out for the season with a broken arm after punching a wall in frustration during the same game against the Pelicans.

It was… a lot.

But as Gobert sees it, the Timberwolves’ performance against the Denver Nuggets in the first round should have changed the mindset of the masses. They are on a five-game losing streak, with three of those four losses coming by single digits.

“I thought Denver gave us a good run,” he continued. “If you ask (Nuggets star Nikola) Jokic and those guys, they’ll tell you. But I thought we did a good job. We were very close to playing one game, taking another game in the mini, and then go to six, go to seven (games) and who knows what happens. But I thought this was a great experience for us.

That last part is undeniably true.

These high-priced Timberwolves, now built by the chief architect of the Nuggets’ title team — President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly — presented Denver with a challenge worthy of further investigation. Only the Phoenix Suns, who fell to Denver in six games in the second round, pushed them further. And now that there seems to be serious inspiration from that experience, fascinating questions emerge.

Is there a chance that Connelly’s controversial pick two summers ago to trade for Gobert, one of the most lopsided deals some have with the Utah Jazz in that deal, could lead to something special? And even with the luxury and tax burdens hanging over their company like a big green antelope, wasn’t the choice to go big not so bad in this Anthony Edwards era? This needs to be seen a lot.

This much we know: the outcome of this season will be tied to the next. If this is true, the Timberwolves will have tough choices to make regarding the salary cap of soon-to-be Alex Rodriguez and Mark Lorre after this season. As every team knows all too well these days, the consequences that come with a second mantle are huge. But if this team doesn’t elevate among the elite, as the players themselves are painfully aware, changes could be coming. On the contrary, Timberwolves officials have insisted that this revenue ownership group would be willing to live in taxes if the team proves worthy of that kind of commitment.

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In order to understand this team, which surprised many, I spoke with their main players during last week’s visit of Minnesota to San Francisco. All of the following interviews are exclusive to The Athletic.

Progress through struggle

The combination of the Gobert-Andersen incident and McDaniel’s season-ending right cross served as a brutal blow to a team that had a shot at starting postseason buzz. But to Gobert’s overall point, not all of Minnesota’s setbacks are self-inflicted.

Towns, who missed significant time in training camp with a non-Covid illness and lost some weight, got off to a slow start with Gobert in crucial regular season games under second-year coach Chris Finch. For the first time. The Edwards-Towns-Gobert trio played together in 19 of Minnesota’s first 21 games, going 9-10 during that span. Then Towns suffered a calf injury in late November that kept him out until late March.

To hear the Timberwolves tell it, that all-important context was overlooked last season when many fans and journalists seemed to decide that this team had no future together.

“I think the media missed it,” said one Timberwolves official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak on condition of anonymity.

Gobert agrees that seed is a driving force behind the Timberwolves’ desire to bring the three-time Defensive Player of the Year to Minnesota.

“We believe in ourselves, but great things don’t happen overnight,” he said. “There’s a process to everything, me and Kate playing together, me joining this team, new coaching staff, new organization, trying to be me, help this team take another step and be able to be the top defenseman in this league. That’s my No. 1 goal. .

“Last year was trouble, trouble, trouble, and then the playoffs. And in our minds, we were going there to beat Denver. This did not happen. But we talked about coming back next year and having a good training camp. From the first training camp, be more mature, build the habits of a winning team, a championship team.

In this latest season, everything was different. Edwards (USA), Gobert (France) and Towns (Dominican Republic) played in the FIBA ​​World Cup in the Philippines, meaning they all came to training camp in top physical shape. As Gobert shared, the message has also changed.

“It was never an issue with talent,” said Gobert, who averaged 11.7 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks this season. “All we needed was to build good habits, hold each other accountable, have each other’s backs, but be able to be honest with each other. So I came back into training camp this year with the goal of being the best defensive player in the world and making this team the best defensive player in the NBA, and I put that as my main focus. The boys have been incredible. The coaching staff was great. So we still have a long way to go, but it’s great to see that it’s all paying off.”

For Gobert’s purposes — and the Timberwolves in general, really — D’Angelo Russell’s trade for Mike Conley in a three-team deal with the Lakers and Utah in February did wonders for the collective comfort level. The 36-year-old, who spent three seasons with Gobert in Utah, has the kind of chemistry with the big man that Russell will never have, and Gobert’s frustrations on the court last season were widely known throughout the organization.

“We definitely feel like we have to buy into our goals and what we want to do every day,” said Conley, who averaged 10.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 28.7 minutes. “And it started in the summer. You saw guys’ work ethic and how hard guys prepare for the season. The energy felt different. So at the beginning of the year, our defense is something we’re looking to establish who we are, and I think we’ve done that for a start. Some volume on that end of the floor. We did.

“Offensively, there’s still a lot of things we need to improve on, but defense I think is one thing where we all said, ‘This is what we’re going to try and do great at.’ That really carried us at the beginning of the year.”

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Karl-Anthony City celebrates after hitting a 3-pointer against Golden State. (John Hefty/USA Today)

The grace of cities plays an important role

With all due respect to Gobert, the 22-year-old Edwards is the true center of the Timberwolves’ universe. His talent, competitive fabric and ability to play regularly like a future Hall of Famer has been the driving force behind all of Minnesota’s recent moves on both ends of the floor.

All of this makes one wonder: How will the 28-year-old City feel when the young man replaces him on the organization’s priority list?

Towns and I didn’t talk on that particular topic, he said a lot that he was in good spirits. Like, really good spirits.

Our conversation took place not long after he had 33 points and 11 rebounds in a win over the Golden State Warriors, so it was interesting. But from Finch down, the general consensus in the locker room was that Towns would buy into this version of the Timberwolves program like no other.

His offensive talent has always been elusive, but Towns has been credited with doing the little things lately by Finch. Attack the glass. Defense goes out on the perimeter as much as possible. Preparing screens. Playing, essentially, ego-less basketball.

In terms of shooting — which player that age is at the top of the proverbial totem pole — Edwards leads the team with 20.3 shots, while Towns is second with 16.5 (Reid is third with 8.7).

“I think we have a good mindset,” Towns said. “It’s a mindset. And when you have things like that, when you have standards based on what you believe in and you keep building, then when things go wrong, you go back to that. This allows us to do what we do now,” he said.

The rumor will always be there, especially when it comes to the Timberwolves’ opponent on Monday night. Minnesota will play the New York Knicks, who are known to be keeping an eye on the city as they plan their next moves for title contention. Towns, as well as anyone, knows there’s certainly a widespread belief around the league that one of Minnesota’s big three must go at some point. Until you lose, until the narrative changes.

“I do what I can every day to contribute to winning and the success of this team,” he said when asked about the buzz. “So I go in every day with the intention of doing whatever it takes to help us win, and no matter what the stats are or what the game is, I’m just going to do my best to be the best I can be in this situation.

“I think we’re all learning together how to win at the highest level. But that’s the fun part. That’s the most exciting part, getting the chance to win at the highest level and compete at the highest level. We have come up with a business approach and we will get the job done. So I’m really happy about the power actually winning.

As our Jon Krawczynski wrote on Saturday, all this winning means that experts should put the “brakes” on the idea that this group is inevitable. Especially if Towns keeps playing like this.

After struggling offensively in the first four games, Towns is averaging 24 points on 56 percent shooting, 41.3 percent from three-point range (5.8 attempts per game), 8.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists over the past eight games. The right-handed rusher’s layup with 5.4 seconds left against New Orleans on Saturday was about as meaningful as they’ve gotten this year, when Towns came up clutch with Edwards on the bench to seal the 121-120 win. He had 29 points on 10-of-11 shooting (2-2 from 3), nine assists and six rebounds in 33 minutes.

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Edwards’ two-way game is key.

Everyone knows Edwards can score at will. We’ve all seen the Michael Jordan comparisons online—albeit holy—and regularly revel in the high-flying highlights of where this young man’s ceiling might be. The stats speak for themselves: He’s averaging 26 points as a team (11th in the league) on 46.7 percent shooting overall and 38.8 percent from long range (6.7 attempts per). He is tied with Conley for the team lead at 5.1 assists per game.

But if the Timberwolves are going to make us all look like fools for predicting their offense, Edwards’ impact on the defensive end will be the biggest factor of all. His impressive defensive prowess was on full display against Boston on Nov. 6, when Edwards was fouled on a matchup with Celtics star Jayson Tatum in Minnesota’s overtime win. Little by little, this kind of performance is becoming the new normal.

Gobert, meanwhile, points to the game against Brooklyn as the first time he saw Edwards as a legitimate wing defender. In a scoreless game and the Timberwolves down 18 points, Edwards guarded the great Kevin Durant at his left elbow and nailed a midrange jumper that has eluded most defenders over the past 15 seasons. You can watch the clip here. For Gobert, that game inspired him to become a defensive mentor to Edwards.

“He was taking that challenge expecting a really good player,” Gobert said. “But then maybe he’ll relax as he waits for another player who isn’t a big name or a big threat. On and off. I tried to push him, telling him that it was not easy. Everyone knows you can be great. You can score 30 points a game and you get paid and you become a star player and all that, but if you want to be great and be a champion and be different from all these guys (you have to wait). … I just focused on holding him accountable.

“I thought to myself, ‘Man, I’ve got to find a way to make everyone think like that.’ I said to him: ‘Brother, it is difficult.’ Many men want to wait. But do they choose to focus only on abuse? The average fan doesn’t care about your boxing or running back or chasing screens. They don’t care about that, but it makes you the (defending) champion. And I want to be a part of that. So yes, we have a good relationship. I really love him. He is very honest, very genuine and wants to win.

Conley, meanwhile, was just two games into his tenure with the Timberwolves before he discovered Edwards’ defensive prowess. Against Dallas, Kyrie Irving became Luka Doncic’s co-star, and Edwards took a defensive approach that the veteran point guard rarely knows.

“He’s like, ‘No, I’ve got Kyrie; (McDaniel), you’ve got Luka; we’re going to win the game,”’ Conley recalled of Edwards’ message. “Coach said, ‘Are we going to foul? And[Edwards]says, ‘No, we’ll wait for them.’ And I was like…”

His eyes are now open.

Conley continued, “Nobody’s saying we’re going to wait for Kirin or we’re going to wait for Luka. “It just doesn’t happen. Mentally, it’s not a thing. But he went out there, and I think we made a difference and ended up winning the game, and those two were amazing. Such thinking remained alien to him.

From Edwards’ point of view, it’s easier than his teammates can make it.

“Don’t let my man score on me,” he said when asked about his defensive mindset.

The Edwards Foundation, however, made it its own to this Timberwolves organization, the way he went from Atlanta to the University of Georgia. If he pulls the alpha male card on Towns or pushes back on the all-for-one and one-for-all message that Finch is trying to push, this whole operation will go sideways.

“You can’t do anything without your teammates, so that’s the way I think about it,” said Edwards, who credits older brother Bubba as his one and only influence in leadership. “I know you can’t win without your teammates. As far as leadership-wise, I am. I’m not thinking like that.

“That’s fun, man. Just trying to find ways to improve. I love going to the gym and working out so every day is really fun for me. So it’s fun, yeah. “

Sooner or later, this is the start that could change basketball lives.

“We’ve got a lot more games so I can’t really say what we’re going to do or what’s going to happen,” Edwards said. But as long as we continue to improve every day and listen to Finch, we’ll be fine.

(Photo by Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards: David Sherman Birding/Getty Images)