SAN FRANCISCO — There is a mantra that guides Minnesota Timberwolves coach Chris Finch. It is not something he often expresses publicly, but when his teams have found themselves in periods of success, those who play for him, coach with him and work alongside him will hear him say it over and over again.
“The more we win,” he will tell his charges, “the more I want to win.”
Finch sat behind a microphone on Sunday evening at Chase Center. His Timberwolves had just finished off a 116-110 victory over the Golden State Warriors for their sixth straight victory. It is their longest winning streak since they won six consecutive in March 2022, and their 7-2 record is their best start to a season in 22 years. But Finch looked irritated, maybe even exasperated as he rattled off all of the things that his team needs to improve upon.
“The first half was just ugly, the way they outrebounded us and the turnovers we made was because we were trying to play in a crowd and not making the right simple play that was in front of us,” he said. “Once we got that corrected, I still think there’s a ton of room for our improvement out there, but at least we were not shooting ourselves in the foot and giving them second chances.”
Finch wasn’t looking at how his Timberwolves held Golden State to 38.5 percent shooting and 28 percent from 3. It mattered little that they used their size to their tremendous advantage by outscoring the Warriors in the paint 62-38. Didn’t matter that the Wolves led for the last 23 minutes of the game.
What stood out to Finch was that the Warriors grabbed 19 offensive rebounds, scored 20 second-chance points and turned 14 Minnesota turnovers into 20 points as well to keep the game closer than it should have been. Yes, he was pleased to get the win. Anytime you can withstand 38 points from Steph Curry in his house and live to tell about it is a good thing. But Finch isn’t satisfied right now. It is not because he is a hard-to-please curmudgeon who can’t just sit back and smell the roses. It is because, deep down inside of him, he knows how good this team can be.
Finch sees the weapons he has at his disposal, the way they seem to have an answer for most things that an opponent throws at them. He sees Rudy Gobert returning to his dominant defensive level, Anthony Edwards making a leap, Karl-Anthony Towns playing well defensively, Jaden McDaniels swarming the perimeter and Mike Conley stirring the drink. He knows he has Naz Reid for firepower off the bench, has seen Nickeil Alexander-Walker step up his playmaking with the second unit and has Kyle Anderson for the safety blanket to give him whatever he’s missing.
The Timberwolves have already beaten Denver, Boston and Golden State. They look like a team that matches up well against some of the best in the Western Conference. They have the No. 1 defense in the league. In six of their nine games the season, the Wolves have held their opponents to 40 percent shooting or worse. The next best number in the league is Oklahoma City with three. Four times this season the Wolves have done it while also making 50 percent or more of their shots. No other team has done it more than once, according to stats provided by the team.
So while Timberwolves fans revel in the sudden emergence, Finch is digging in and pushing a team that he believes is much better than it has shown in the early going.
“I thought tonight we left a lot of meat on the bone,” Finch said. “We can play a lot better, and that’s not to say we expect to win easily or anything like that. It’s just when you get outrebounded and turn it over and you don’t make the easy, obvious play, that’s a lot of room for growth right there.”
Finch isn’t alone in being unsatisfied. The Wolves got off to a rough start in the game but still hung in there to take a 54-51 lead at halftime. When they reached the locker room, there could have been a calming reception encouraging the players to keep at it and complimenting them for weathering the early storm. There was not.
Assistant coach Elston Turner lit into the Wolves for giving up 11 offensive rebounds and allowing the Warriors to turn nine turnovers into 15 points. Turner is the elder statesman of the Wolves coaching staff, with a booming voice and a commanding presence. Edwards said Turner “cussed us out” for their sloppiness, and it woke them up.
“He came in here with a little attitude,” Edwards said. “We ain’t used to that, so we had to change it up.”
The Wolves outscored Golden State 35-22 in the third to take control of the game. Even when they weren’t at their best in the first half, the Wolves had mismatches all over the floor against the smaller Warriors. Yes, Curry went off, making five 3s and 11 of 12 free throws, but none of his teammates scored more than 16 points. Golden State was playing the second night of a back-to-back, and Klay Thompson was just 5 of 16 from the floor for 16 points, Andrew Wiggins managed six on 3-of-7 shooting and Jonathan Kuminga was 2 of 11.
McDaniels made Curry work for everything he got on the perimeter. And there were times when he went into the paint and was surrounded by long arms from McDaniels, Gobert and Towns, with nowhere to go.
“I had two turnovers tonight where you don’t have a plan when you get in there and those big guys are long and lengthy at the rim,” Curry said. “And you don’t have options so you have to play under control in those types of situations.”
Meanwhile, the Timberwolves were flush with options. Towns had perhaps his best game of the young season with 21 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, two steals and some terrific interior defense. The offensive numbers were nice, but he may have made the play of the game when the Warriors grabbed a turnover and headed up the court on a two-on-one that could have cut the deficit to nine points with five minutes to go. But Thompson missed the layup and Towns hustled back to contest Kuminga’s putback attempt, and the Warriors came up empty on the trip.
This was rough pic.twitter.com/4drNqM3uGN
— warriorsworld (@warriorsworld) November 13, 2023
“If you want to win in a place like this against a team like this, you gotta make those plays,” Towns said. “I’m just going to do whatever it takes every day to help my team win and help our team win and do everything I can to contribute to success for this team.”
Edwards was questionable for the game with an illness, started sluggish, but still managed to score 33 points on 11-of-27 shooting with seven assists and six rebounds. Gobert had 10 points, 10 boards and five blocks and McDaniels scored 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
“I love the makeup of our roster, the depth of it,” said Conley, who scored two big buckets in the fourth when the Wolves offense went a little stagnant. “We have so many guys with specific skill sets that can affect the game any given night.”
As the Warriors grew increasingly desperate, they went into all their tricks to try to rattle the Wolves. Chris Paul dove on the ground for a loose ball, plowed into Conley’s knee and somehow drew a foul. Draymond Green huffed and puffed and tried to blow their house down, barking at Edwards during a confrontation in the fourth quarter under the Warriors basket.
“What are you going to do about it?” Green snapped while his Warriors trailed 98-86 with 5 minutes, 25 seconds to play.
All Edwards did was shrug him off and bury Golden State. He had rushed a few shots earlier in the fourth quarter that left the door just a little bit open for a Warriors comeback. Now with a little added determination, Edwards erupted for 10 points over the next four minutes, including a tough, turnaround jumper at the foul line to seal the win.
This is a team that is carrying the scars of last season’s struggles with it into every game. The 2022-23 team was immature and disjointed. Maybe those Wolves expected things to come easy for them after acquiring Gobert, and when it was hard, they didn’t know how to react. These Wolves remember what that felt like and have gone about their business this season determined not to feel that frustration again.
No victory laps are being taken right now by a team that has been known in the past to take them prematurely. With each win that comes along, the hunger seems to increase.
“I don’t think we’re too high or too low,” Edwards said. “We’re just right here because we know how it feels to lose. I don’t think we want to go back there. It’s just coming out playing hard every night.”
LOOK OUT BELOW 🐜 pic.twitter.com/HFWcfGqtb6
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 13, 2023
When the game was over, all five starters, and several more players, were outside the Wolves locker room going through a spirited workout session with Javair Gillett, Wolves vice president of sports science and performance, and the team’s athletic training staff.
“I would hope everyone in here is greedy as hell,” Towns said. “We should be greedy over getting wins. The standards we set for ourselves in the offseason, I’m really happy to see those carry over. But it’s about consistency. It’s about doing it every single game regardless of how you feel or regardless of the flight or whatever obstacles that are in the way.”
The season is not even a month old. The hard work is only just beginning.
(Photo of Karl-Anthony Towns: Noah Graham / NBAE via Getty Images)