April 19, 2024

Kyle Anderson’s revival is keying Timberwolves’ offensive surge

In the middle of December 2022, the Minnesota Timberwolves had just been thumped for the second consecutive game in Portland to fall to 13-14 on the season. Everything was hard back then. Rudy Gobert was still new in town, Karl-Anthony Towns was injured and the Timberwolves just could not seem to find their way.

After the 21-point loss, Kyle Anderson was asked what needed to happen to get things turned around.

“When you’re going through hell,” he said, “keep going.”

It is a favorite saying of Anderson’s, emblematic of the toughness that it took for him to rise through the prep ranks in New Jersey. He didn’t let any of the snickers about his shooting form faze him as he developed into an NBA prospect at UCLA. He grinded through the early days on the bench in San Antonio into a valuable role player in his 10th season in the league.

In 2022-23, Anderson was in the early stages of one of his best individual seasons. He stepped into Towns’ starting spot at power forward and would go on to shoot a career-high 51 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3-point range. He played great defense and became a vocal leader in the locker room, helping the Timberwolves stabilize after that rocky start and find their way into the playoffs.

This season, the roles have been reversed. The Timberwolves have been rolling from the start of the season, having fully integrated Gobert into the lineup and assembled the league’s best defense as they climbed to the top of the Western Conference.

But as the team came together, Anderson was left searching for his game. An eye injury suffered in the loss to the Denver Nuggets in the playoffs last spring seemingly affected his 3-point shot, so much so that he rarely shoots it anymore. He scored in double figures just seven times before the All-Star break and wondered if the Wolves would look to trade him and his expiring salary before the deadline in early February.

With Towns healthy and Naz Reid signed to a lucrative new contract, Anderson moved from his more natural power forward position to small forward. His lack of confidence in his shot wreaked havoc with the spacing. His defense and coach Chris Finch’s faith in him never faltered. But Anderson was in hell those first three months of the season.

He just kept going.

Backed by his coach, his teammates and the peace of mind that came when the trade deadline passed without him moving, Anderson has rediscovered the offensive ingredients that allowed him to cook last season. He scored 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting with nine assists, six rebounds and two steals in a 113-106 victory over the Houston Rockets on Tuesday night, the eighth time he has been in double figures in scoring in the last 11 games.

“I think since the trade deadline, breathe a sigh of relief that he wasn’t going anywhere, and thankfully he (didn’t),” Finch said. “Never had any plans to (trade him). But it seems, at that point in time, it’s been better and better for him. Looks like the Kyle of old.”

The Timberwolves certainly have needed it. With Towns out with a meniscus injury, the Wolves have had to remake their offense on the fly in some ways. They miss KAT’s shooting and individual scoring ability, so they have pivoted to a more democratic approach. Finch is getting more creative in his lineup constructions, often deploying multiple point guards with Anderson to put a premium on taking care of the ball and moving it to the open man.

Tuesday was the perfect example. When the Timberwolves struggled mightily to score in a 16-point first quarter, Finch started the second quarter with Mike Conley, Jordan McLaughlin, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Anderson and Gobert, the only non-ballhandler in the group. The unit spurred the Wolves to a 38-point second quarter by turning up the heat on defense and neutralizing Houston’s switch-heavy defensive scheme.

“I love when that unit’s in the game,” Anderson said. “It’s gotta be quick passes, less pick-and-roll, less pounding the ball, less ISOs. You just gotta move the ball and wait for the defense to relax and you attack them.”

With Towns out, the 6-foot-9 Anderson is back at his preferred power forward, but he is a 4 in name only. He orchestrates the offense, guards multiple positions and does everything Finch needs. The Wolves have traditionally struggled against teams that switch on screens with Towns and Anthony Edwards often bogging down the offense by isolating on their defenders and dribbling the air out of the ball. But a point guard-heavy lineup makes quicker decisions, moves the ball and finds the open man.

Against the Rockets, Naz Reid led the way with 25 points, Conley went 3 of 4 from deep and the Wolves shot 53 percent from the field against a Houston defense that had been top 10 in the NBA during its recent 11-game winning streak.

“We’re all high IQ guys, who all want to see the next guy flourish anyway,” Reid said. “So I think everybody, they just know how to make the right play and make the right read.”

After languishing in the high teens and low 20s in offensive efficiency for much of the season, they have the No. 8 rating over the past 10 games. Their turnovers are down, their 3-point shooting is up and they are 8-2 to move into second place in the Western Conference. The Wolves (52-23) have the same record as Oklahoma City but hold the tiebreaker over the Thunder.

As Anderson’s offensive game has returned, so has his confidence. You can see it in how deep he digs into his bag of tricks these days, from crossover dribbles, to pull-up jumpers in the lane and even a nifty ball fake in transition that left Rockets star Jalen Green grasping at air.

“It’s normally how I play, but sometimes you don’t get to showcase it,” Anderson said last week after a win over the Pistons. “I don’t know, March, I always start to play well in the season, whether I’ve been playing well all season or bad. Just finding my rhythm a little bit more.”

The high-IQ group helped the Wolves attack a unique Rockets lineup. Houston surged back into contention for the Play-In Tournament after rising big man Alperen Şengün went down with an injury. They have gone super small with skinny forward Jabari Smith playing a lot of center minutes, spreading teams out, shooting 3s and running the floor.

It was a good test for the Wolves, who have committed to staying with their big lineup even when opponents try to play Gobert off the floor by going small. Gobert had 12 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks in 35 minutes. And the Wolves were able to take advantage of smaller players switching onto him in the paint, thanks to the recognition and passing from Anderson, Conley and McLaughlin.

McLaughlin is another Wolves bench player enjoying a revival. He hit 3 of 4 3s against the Rockets, scoring 11 points with seven assists. The Timberwolves outscored the Rockets by 17 points in McLauglin’s 18 minutes, a sign of how valuable he has become. He is shooting a scorching 50 percent from 3 on the season, including 64 percent over the last 10 games.

“Right now, I’m in a pretty good rhythm,” McLaughlin said. “I’m just trying to stick with it, stay to my routine on a daily basis, and make sure my mechanics are staying the same on every shot.”

Anderson picked his spots as well, using his strength to bully inside when the opportunity presented itself.

“We’re able to handle adversity, switch up the game plan, make adjustments,” Anderson said. “That’s what good teams can do.”

That is the name of the game in the playoffs. A seven-game series is all about adjustments, countering what your opponent is doing from game to game. The Wolves expect that some teams will try to go extra small on them as a way of getting Gobert, the odds-on favorite for NBA Defensive Player of the Year, either away from the basket or off the floor entirely. The Timberwolves are determined not to allow that to happen.

“I’m sure games like tonight are great for us in our playoff preparation,” Finch said. “Teams are going to try to go to the extreme to some of these things. Everything will get put to the test. It’s a continual learning process.”

The Wolves led by as many as 15 points before the Rockets stormed back to pull within one in the fourth. But Reid hit a big 3-pointer and Edwards shrugged off a rough first three quarters to score eight points in the final minute of play to help hold off Houston.

Edwards finished with 21 points, but he was just 5 of 16 from the field, including 0 of 6 on 3s, the third straight game he has gone 0-for from behind the arc. He didn’t score a point until there were 24 seconds left in the first half and did not get his first field goal until there was 6:16 left in the third quarter.

Where the Wolves were once so dependent on Edwards and Towns for scoring, they are now more versatile. With Anderson, Conley, McLaughlin and Alexander-Walker, Finch can run a little more wide-open. He never lost faith in Anderson, and now he is being rewarded.

“He was our most important player last year in many ways,” Finch said. “He saved our season. He did anything we asked him to do, so we know he had it in him.”

(Photo of Jock Landale and Kyle Anderson: Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)