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Many of us went into Monday night amped to watch a duel between the top-two MVP candidates and two best big men in the game, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokić.
But even with a couple of solid performances from each man and a game that went down to the wire, there weren’t a ton of memorable head-to-head moments. Nothing fundamentally changed about the race for the award, either, as a man named Bones stole the show and the Nuggets stormed back late to beat the Sixers in Philly. (My coworker Chris Mannix was there and documented what turned out to be one of the most entertaining games all year.)
Ironically, though, it was the league’s third-best center, Karl-Anthony Towns, who thrived most Monday, dropping a career-best and NBA-season-high 60 points in San Antonio. In a year that’s been dominated by Embiid and Jokić, here’s how dominant KAT’s showing was: It marked the first time a center’s logged 60 in a game since Shaq back in 2000—the year he won his lone MVP.
Towns had 56 through three quarters, but between his foul trouble and the Wolves being up comfortably to begin the fourth, he managed only four in the closing moments to get to 60.
Minnesota arguably having too big a lead for Towns to potentially go for 70 is fitting for how things have been lately: The Wolves have had their fangs in opponents’ necks for almost a month now, having won eight of nine for a mark of 40–30 and sitting just a game and a half out of sixth in the West.
The Timberwolves own both the NBA’s best record and best net rating since the All-Star break. But even when you zoom out to look at their entire body of work, for the whole season, they rank among the league’s top 10 in offensive efficiency and are tied for 10th in defensive efficiency. Generally speaking, depending on how much you trust the metrics, that’s title-contender-level stuff. About five years ago, that premise was part of what I mentioned in the middle of a .500 season the Milwaukee Bucks were having. Their elite balance suggested they might have the makings of a young team that could win a title soon, with a handful of stylistic tweaks.
Still the fifth-youngest team in basketball, Minnesota has its moments of inconsistency. Refs blow their whistles on the Wolves—who send opponents to the line at the league’s highest rate by a sizable margin—like they’re in gym class. The club dropped six straight during one October and November stretch before then winning five in a row heading into Thanksgiving. Minnesota also logged a five-game slide to start December before breaking the slump with four straight victories.
Confidence has been on the rise since then, with the Wolves piecing together three separate win streaks of four or more since entering 2022. There’s an occasional nastiness to how they play defensively, and they force more turnovers than any other team. Yet their latest win streak—one of six games—was snapped this past week by an embarrassing loss to a bottom-of-the-barrel Magic club. “I think we kind of disrespect teams in our approach,” guard D’Angelo Russell acknowledged. “Our approach would be a little different with a better team.”
Coach Chris Finch, still in his first full season with Minnesota, uncharacteristically lit into the group during a film session ahead of its second game of a back-to-back at first place Miami. But the players took the criticism and even showed a feistiness in being taken to task during the session, according to The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski. And the result was a surprising, come-from-behind victory in which many things went wrong for the Wolves, between Towns having foul trouble, Russell being off the mark, and two of their best defenders—Pat Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt—sitting due to injuries. (Jimmy Butler sat for Miami.)
But that trait, to go on the road and take down a top team after taking one on the chin, illustrates grit. And that’s a scary component for a team this young to have as the playoffs roll around. Minnesota, inching closer to avoiding the play-in altogether, would be a nightmare draw this postseason. Between Towns, Russell and Anthony Edwards, it already has far more top-end offensive talent than most teams—especially for a low seed—and is putting it together faster than many of us thought possible.
Meat and potatoes: Good reads here and elsewhere
This past week was a key one as far as milestones are concerned, and we can’t let you go too long without knowing what all was achieved. In a profanity, tear-filled ceremony that was perfectly fitting for the high-strung Kevin Garnett, the Celtics retired The Big Ticket’s jersey Sunday. In the run-up to that, Jay King and Jared Weiss from The Athletic published a fantastic oral history on Garnett’s time with the franchise, ranging from his acquisition, his unmatched intensity, and the sort of giving teammate and person he is behind the scenes.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who’d long ago become the winningest NBA coach when also taking into account postseason victories, earned his 1,336th career regular-season win this past Friday, finally putting him one ahead of Don Nelson. My teammate Howard Beck wrote a piece on how nearly everyone close to Popovich defines him by mentioning memories unrelated to the sport first.
In that same vein, ESPN’s NBA staff wove together a lengthy list of Pop memories from high-profile players and coaches. Ones in which Popovich took the Pelle Pelle leather coat off his back, with large sums of cash stuffed in the pockets, to add an extra layer of warmth onto a person sleeping on a sidewalk. Others in which he consoled members of his brotherhood—Monty Williams, after the tragic loss of his wife, and Manu Ginóbili, after the Spurs’ crushing Game 6 loss in the 2013 Finals—through some of their deepest hurts.
LeBron James notched his 10,000th assist, becoming the first player in NBA history to have 10,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 10,000 dimes. The milestone assist was put in the books when close friend and teammate Carmelo Anthony knocked down an open three-pointer. With 36,854 career points, James also figures to pull into second place all-time in scoring this week, ahead of Karl Malone. But he’s hoping to do so with Los Angeles winning as opposed to losing by double figures—like so many games have concluded this season. As StatMuse pointed out, the Lakers are 0–8 since the break when James fails to score 50 points. (In a rare move for James, he didn’t take questions from reporters after yet another loss Monday against Toronto.)
Milestones aside, we had several solid pieces here at Sports Illustrated last week. Michael Pina wrote a great story on Ja Morant, this year’s most electrifying player. Rohan Nadkarni followed that by writing on reigning MVP Nikola Jokić, who, even in the midst of potentially earning the award again, has been even more dominant than most folks realize.
As they wrote about a pair of mainstays, I wrote something I’ve been wanting to work on for a while now: a piece about how hard it is to determine when it’s safe to fall in love with a player by buying a pricey jersey that could become obsolete if your team trades the person away. As someone who once wrote about the Knicks full time, I had the pleasure of meeting a lot of fans who’d experienced that exact $150 heartbreak, which has only become more common in today’s NBA, as players switch teams more abruptly than they ever have before.
Things to watch, this week and beyond
If injuries are one of the worst things in sports, players coming back from injuries is one of the best.
The Warriors welcomed Draymond Green back with open arms Monday, bringing him off the bench in a 126–114 home victory over Washington. Upon Green entering the game, Golden State—benefiting from his otherworldly work as a ball mover and screener—immediately scored triples on four consecutive possessions. Green finished a team-best +24 in plus-minus in just 20 minutes of work. But his defense is what the club will benefit from most, particularly after the Warriors struggled mightily on that end of the floor without him.
It was also great to see Bucks center Brook Lopez, who has missed most of Milwaukee’s season and required back surgery in early December. He understandably looked out of rhythm and rusty at times, particularly when called for a terribly obvious moving screen in the team’s first road win in Utah in more than 20 years. But his availability, both as a floor spacer and rim protector, will be key in certain matchups, even if Lopez’s drop coverage isn’t an ideal fit against everyone.
Lastly, the Bulls got back guard Alex Caruso on Saturday against the Cavs, and Chicago promptly held an opponent to less than 100 points for the first time since … Caruso left the lineup seven weeks ago. This isn’t to suggest his instincts and ballhawking will fix everything. (The Bulls suffered a bad loss in Sacramento on Monday.) But the Bulls will need to defend better—at the level they were showing early in the season—to have any shot of making real playoff noise. For that reason, they await the returns of Lonzo Ball and Patrick Williams, both of whom remain on the mend.
Similarly, the Bucks are eager to get back key role player Pat Connaughton—someone whose absence has hurt since Donte DiVincenzo was traded to the Kings—and the Warriors hope to see second-year big James Wiseman make his season debut soon.
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