Chris Finch walked into the Minnesota Timberwolves locker room and started to address the team after a victory over the Houston Rockets on Sunday, clinching a trip to the All-Star Game for Finch and his coaching staff.
The players were quiet, offering the slight possibility that this would be just another quick postgame chat before everyone got showered and headed out for the night. Mike Conley stood right in front of Finch, looking coyly to his right at Anthony Edwards, perhaps a signal from the veteran to the youngster. Then it was time for a shower, all right.
Finch was doused with water from his appreciative players, happy that their under-the-radar coach and his staff would get the chance to coach the Western Conference team at the league’s showcase event.
“That probably was the greatest thing of this season,” Edwards said. “That’s dope for him to get recognized for how great he’s coached this year.”
THAT’S OUR COACH pic.twitter.com/fUPlAf5dFv
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) February 5, 2024
The 111-90 win over the Rockets typified the Timberwolves (35-15) climb to the top of the West this season. It came from a smothering defense led by Rudy Gobert (17 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks) and Jaden McDaniels, who held Jalen Green to 3-of-15 shooting, and a scoring eruption from Edwards, who put up 22 of his 32 points in the third quarter. It also had a quarter full of turnovers that had some stomachs churning at Target Center at halftime. But it was the meeting Finch called a day earlier that best illustrates why he and his staff are headed to Indianapolis.
The Wolves could have clinched the spot for Finch on Friday night against the Orlando Magic. They appeared to have it under control first when they opened a 17-point lead in the second quarter, and then when put their foot on the gas at the end of the third to go up by eight. Then the Magic outscored Minnesota 28-18 in the final quarter, continuing a troubling trend of woeful fourths for the Wolves this season. The Charlotte Hornets, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics all erased fourth-quarter deficits to beat the Wolves in January.
The collapse against Orlando was not for the faint of heart. The Wolves missed 15 of 20 shots, turned the ball over three times and saw the offense crater into a series of isolation plays that bogged everything down. Edwards tried to put the team on his back, but the Magic’s size across the board made it difficult for him to find any lanes to the basket. McDaniels also committed an ill-advised foul late that put Paolo Banchero on the free-throw line, where he iced the win.
The frustration was evident everywhere afterward in one of the quietest locker rooms of the season. Edwards was at a loss for words on how things melted down to the degree they did.
“I honestly can’t tell you what happened,” he said after the game. “I don’t know.”
The collective exasperation from players to coaches prompted Finch to change up the practice plan on Saturday. Typically, the Wolves will run a short film session with 12-15 clips that target one specific theme that the coaching staff wants to address. The idea is to make the session easy to digest and get to the action of practice as soon as possible to start implementing it.
Finch decided that the fourth-quarter issues had reached a critical mass. The team sat in the film room for an hour, going over every single play of the fourth to illustrate exactly what needed to happen for the team to close out games. Finch said it wasn’t the time for yelling and screaming, but it was time to lay it all out there.
“It’s very matter of fact. We don’t pull any punches. We’re direct,” Finch said. “We have a saying in our locker room. It’s called ‘brutal truth.’ Everyone has to give it to each other when it’s necessary. We just have to make sure we’re doing it in a non-threatening way, but these messages are being received.”
In keeping with his overall philosophy, Finch did not lord over the meeting himself. This was not a time for one voice but for many.
Assistant coach Corliss Williamson kicked things off, sources told The Athletic. Williamson is a new addition to Finch’s staff this season, but Finch empowers him, as he does all of his assistants, to have a significant role in the team’s strategy and execution. Williamson, who earned the nickname “Big Nasty” in his days as a national championship-winning player at Arkansas and then during a 12-year NBA career, has been in charge of the Wolves’ transition defense this season. He is a plain-talker, with a booming voice who can quickly grab the team’s attention.
“I think Corliss was the MVP of that film session, for sure,” Edwards said.
Williamson addressed the breakdowns defensively, especially the mental errors and lack of effort that allowed Orlando to score 17 points in transition and get to the line for 17 free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter alone.
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) February 3, 2024
Then the players started to talk. Conley was first, focusing on poor spacing and explaining how their offensive issues weren’t solely the fault of a thirsty Edwards. The 22-year-old needed to resist the urge to try to take over games all by himself. But the Wolves also had to make sure that the lanes weren’t clogged for his drives, so he would have cleaner reads when the defense collapsed on him.
Kyle Anderson and Rudy Gobert followed, each with their critiques and insight into what was going wrong and what the team could do to fix it. That bred more communication that was open, honest and came from all corners, which is exactly what Finch wanted. The last thing he wanted to do was dominate the conversation.
“We tried to tease a lot of discussion out of the team,” Finch said. “When a team is talking to itself, you know you’re going to get somewhere faster.”
One of Finch’s idols while growing up in Reading, Pa., was Indiana University head coach Bobby Knight, but he runs the Timberwolves in a starkly different manner than Knight led the Hoosiers. This is no dictatorship. Finch gives his assistants wide latitude and say in how things are done. And he empowers players to take responsibility for themselves. It was all on display in that film session.
“Guys were talking about film, talking about what they needed to do to get better, coaches were calling people out, telling them they needed to do this and that and guys were receptive to it and just grown men about it,” Conley said.
The Timberwolves responded with a complete effort against Houston on Sunday. They held the Rockets to 35 percent shooting, had a turnover-free first quarter and committed only seven in the second half and led by as many as 28 points in the fourth quarter, ensuring there would be no collapse this time around.
ADD IT TO THE HIGHLIGHT REEL 🐜 pic.twitter.com/NCXtXeMJyg
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) February 5, 2024
A tangible sign of progress: Edwards came off of a screen and, instead of barreling into a crowd near the rim as he did in the mess against the Magic, he slipped a bounce pass to Gobert for a dunk and a 96-75 lead. After the play, Gobert pointed right at Edwards to applaud his unselfishness. It was exactly what they talked about on Saturday.
“More than just the film, we had a couple of guys speak our mind and decide what we want to do as a team,” Gobert said. “We’ve said those things already, a few times, but now it’s about that resonating also when things go well.”
Importantly, Finch also takes ownership of his mistakes. On Sunday, he lamented not playing point guard Jordan McLaughlin in the second half against Orlando, believing that decision was partially responsible for the lack of ball movement and offensive flow in the fourth. On Sunday against Houston, McLaughlin played the last four minutes of the third quarter and started the fourth with Conley, Anderson, Gobert and Naz Reid, a five-man group that excels at moving the ball and making quick decisions.
“I’ve been kicking myself for 48 hours that I didn’t go to it the other day,” Finch said of pairing Gobert with two point guards.
The win gave the Wolves the same record as the Oklahoma City Thunder, who split the season series 2-2 with Minnesota. The Thunder technically lead the West because they have the better division record, but the league uses conference record as the second tiebreaker to determine who coaches the All-Star game, so Finch is headed to Indy instead of Mark Daigneault.
The first thing that Wolves players mention when asked about Finch is his willingness to coach this team hard. The modern NBA is a star-driven league, and that can make the practice of coaching them a delicate one. But these players say Finch doesn’t play favorites.
“He doesn’t back down from anybody,” Conley said. “He’s a guy that really challenges you, calls you out in front of everybody. He lets you know what you need to do to get better every day and is consistent with that.”
Finch is the second-winningest coach in franchise history with 139 wins in three-plus seasons. He has led the Wolves to playoff appearances in his first two full seasons and has them headed toward a third with the goal of advancing out of the first round for just the second time in the team’s 35 seasons in the league.
These Timberwolves started the season 17-4, rocketing to the top of the conference. They are 18-11 since, still impressive, especially by the Wolves’ historically meager standards. But there is much room for improvement. So Finch will keep pushing them, prodding them and making sure that every coach and player around him believes he has a stake in how they get there.
It hasn’t always been pretty this season, but when Finch looks at his team at the 50-game mark, at a defense that has been head and shoulders above any other in the league, at the pure scoring acumen of Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns, at the experience of Conley and Gobert to balance the youth of Edwards and McDaniels, he sees a team “that has all the makings of being a special one.”
“They really root hard for their teammates, and they obviously root hard for the coaching staff,” Finch said. “It’s fun. It’s really a lot of fun.”
Two weekends from now, Finch and his coaching staff will be joining Edwards and Towns for a lot more fun at All-Star Weekend.
(Photo of Chris Finch and Timberwolves: Courtesy of Minnesota Timberwolves)