Timberwolves don’t fear Kings when pondering a potential playoff series

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The Minnesota Timberwolves have been one of the best home teams in the league this season, riding an energetic Target Center crowd to a 22-6 record when they took the court against the Sacramento Kings on Friday night.

It is a big reason the Wolves have put a priority on trying to lock up the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. They believe the home-court advantage could propel them on a deep playoff run for just the second time in franchise history. Their No. 1-ranked defense has even more bite at home, where they surrender nearly 7.0 fewer points per game on average.

So far, one team seems to be immune to the Timberwolves’ dominance at home. The Sacramento Kings offense has run circles around Minnesota in their two games in Minnesota, including their 124-120 overtime victory on Friday night.

Even without star guard De’Aaron Fox, who missed the game with a knee injury, the Kings shot 50 percent from the field, outscored the Wolves 19-0 in transition, 68-54 in the paint and 20-16 in second-chance points and got 39 points from super-sub Malik Monk to get the win. The Kings became the first team this season to win the season series against the Wolves (2-1) and won both of the games in Minnesota, including their 124-111 win in November.

One would think that would make the Wolves wary of a potential matchup in the playoffs against Sacramento, a distinct possibility given that Minnesota (42-18) is in first place and the Kings (34-25) are in seventh. But the majority of Wolves polled on Friday night after the game did not seem to be too concerned.

“I really don’t worry about them when they come here,” said Jaden McDaniels, who led the Wolves with 26 points. “I feel pretty confident we could beat them four times in a row if we had to play them. We just throw this one to the side.”

Coach Chris Finch said the success they had with a three-big lineup of Karl-Anthony Towns, Naz Reid and Rudy Gobert in the fourth quarter on Friday night gives them reason to be optimistic should their paths cross in the playoffs.

“They have an identity. They play to it every single night,” Finch said. “We know what works and what doesn’t work against them.”

Domantas Sabonis had 21 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists and three blocks before fouling out, and Davion Mitchell had a rare hot shooting night with 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting to help the Kings overcome Fox’s absence. Sabonis was terrific in the first half, putting up 17 points and 12 boards in 19 minutes. But the Wolves adjusted and held him to four points, three rebounds and five assists in the second half and overtime.

Gobert had 16 points, 16 rebounds and three blocked shots and pointed to their 110-98 win in Sacramento in December. He said his ability to guard Sabonis one-on-one allows his teammates to stay home on the perimeter and limit Sacramento’s 3-point shooting. Sacramento averages 39.4 3-point attempts per game, which is fourth-highest in the NBA. But Minnesota held the Kings to 29 3-point attempts on Friday.

“I actually think we match really well with them,” Gobert said.

The only player who expressed any level of concern was Mike Conley, who pointed to Sacramento’s frenetic pace as a challenge for a bigger Timberwolves team that likes to play in the half court.

“They have shooters everywhere,” Conley said. “Playing big like we do, it’s a rat race. Once they get the ball, they’re throwing it out, they’re trying to drive and kick, and you’re asking our 7-footers to guard wings, and it puts a lot of pressure on us, and they have to be perfect to get stops and get back on defense.”

It was Finch’s decision to supersize, giving the Wolves a chance. They were down nine at the start of the fourth quarter, but then Finch went to Gobert, Towns and Reid all on the floor at the same time, which resulted in a 33-24 quarter for Minnesota that forced overtime. The one thing they could not do was contain Monk, who scored 18 in the fourth and six more in overtime to secure the win.

Anthony Edwards had just 11 points on 2-of-11 shooting before leaving at halftime for personal reasons. Towns was not sharp either, scoring 19 points on 7-of-17 shooting and missing five of his six 3s. He also had three turnovers, including a costly one in overtime when he overthrew a pass to Reid, who was open in the corner.

“We fought hard,” Towns said. “We did enough, just little things that matter that cost you a game, they killed us tonight.”

Vets off their games

Gobert and Conley have been two consistent, highly impactful players for the Wolves this season. That is why it was jarring to see the two of them not playing their best basketball in back-to-back games this week, against Memphis and Sacramento.

The Wolves were outscored by 22 points in the 35 minutes Conley was on the floor on Friday night, an unfathomable number for a player whose net rating is plus-22 this season, per Basketball Reference. He had 14 points and eight assists but turned it over three times. He was also victimized by a 15-2 Kings start to the game that dug the Wolves a big hole. This comes after he scored just four points on 1-of-4 shooting in the win over the Grizzlies on Wednesday.

“I still felt like when I was out there, I made a lot of plays, got deflections, got offensive rebounds, trying to make the right reads,” Conley said. “A couple of turnovers here and there that were uncharacteristic, but other than that, just trying to be myself when I’m out there.”

Gobert had strong numbers and played superb defense on Sabonis in the second half. But Gobert was one of several starters with low energy at the beginning of the game. Sabonis had 12 points and eight rebounds in the first quarter alone, the second straight center to get off to a great start against the Wolves. Jaren Jackson Jr. had 19 points and 10 rebounds at halftime on Wednesday, and Gobert watched the final seven minutes of the game from the bench.

Finch estimated that Gobert was about 85 percent healthy at the moment. He has been fighting through an ankle injury for the last 10 days or so but was not listed on the injury report ahead of the Kings game.

In overtime, Gobert dropped a good feed from Conley that may have generated an easy dunk and also made a rare error on defense when he tried to switch off of Monk at the 3-point line by pointing to Reid to check him. But it was too late, and Monk buried the triple to tie the game at 120.

“I tried to invert so I can be the low man and Naz can take him, but he has the ball at the same time and it was a little far, too,” Gobert said. “But he shot it right away and he hit the shot. That one was on me. That was a big play.”

McDaniels shines

In a season with so many pleasant surprises and exciting developments, McDaniels’ stagnant offensive output has been one of the few downers. Virtually all of his stats are down this season, which is not how it was supposed to go after he signed a five-year, $136 million contract extension in the summer.

He has a very difficult job, covering the best perimeter player on the other team every night and then oftentimes serves as the fifth option on offense, meaning his opportunities to show what he can do are scarce. The Wolves have made a concerted effort to get him going lately, including on Friday night when they ran a play for him on their first possession and got him a bucket. That got him going on a night when he made 9 of 11 shots, including 5 of 7 3s.

“It got me in a rhythm early, then just not trying to force anything and playing right away and knocking down shots, really,” McDaniels said.

There have been times this season when McDaniels has pushed the envelope a little too much. He has a high level of confidence in his offensive game. But with Towns and Edwards at the top of the offensive food chain, there have not been as many opportunities for McDaniels to look for his shot.

“It was great. He was real confident,” Finch said. “Stepped into his shot, let it go. We needed it too. We needed someone else to step up and score for us.”

McDaniels also grabbed seven rebounds, an unusually high number for him and indicative of his overall activity. In the first half, he tried to dunk on Sabonins, but lost the handle going up and was fouled. His teammates loved the aggressiveness and encouraged him to keep ramping it up. It was the second straight strong game for him. He had 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting with three assists and three blocks against the Grizzlies.

“Jaden’s one of the best talents in this locker room, so when he’s doing that and he’s having the confidence flowing, especially offensively, defensively we know what he can do,” Towns said. “We’re a different team, we’re on another level.”

(Photo of Rudy Gobert and Domantas Sabonis: David Berding / Getty Images)

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