Skip to content

Schrödinger's KAT: Wolves live, die with mercurial star

Tim Heitman / Getty Images

The small sample of a playoff series makes it a vehicle for wild swings in perception. There are of course aspects of playoff basketball that suit some players and teams better than others, but so many of these series also turn on the whims of whistles and bounces and jump-shooting variance. Landscapes shift with a gust of the breeze.

There's no better avatar for the precarity and outsized significance of playoff outcomes than Karl-Anthony Towns. Two weeks ago, he was in the midst of a glorious redemption arc, practically rewriting his career narrative. After struggling badly in his first three postseason trips, Towns exorcised some serious demons in a sweep of the Suns and a seven-game triumph over the Nuggets. He combined to average 19-9-3 on 52/44/83 shooting with just 1.8 turnovers in those series, while taking on Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokic as his primary defensive assignments. He saved the Wolves' bacon in Game 7 in Denver with one of the most complete performances of his career.

Three games later, the Timberwolves were on the brink, and Towns was back to being a lightning rod, absorbing a ton of blame for the 3-0 hole they found themselves in against the Dallas Mavericks. The self-proclaimed best shooting big man of all time had been abandoned by his trusty jumper in the West finals, going 3-for-22 from 3-point range, and he couldn't do nearly enough in other areas to compensate.

Against a much different style of offense in Dallas - one built around two elite ball-handlers and a pair of rim-running lob finishers, with no use for post-up bigs - his defense noticeably slipped. His limitations as a ball-screen defender and rim-protector were exposed anew, his diligent work in the first two rounds fading further from memory with each clumsy attempt to hedge and recover against Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic. At the offensive end, on top of his shooting woes, his decision-making out of post-ups and drives wasn't as quick or as sharp as it was against Phoenix and Denver. He also shot only 38% inside the arc in those three games. The Wolves performed 17 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor.

Then, in Game 4, we got the full Towns experience - the transcendent and the appalling and everything in between - crammed into 29 captivating minutes, as he narrowly overcame his own worst impulses to help keep Minnesota's season alive. The reason it was only 29 minutes, in a game that saw him score 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting and register a plus-15 on-court differential, was because he fouled himself out with an array of hairpulling decisions.

One minute he'd hit a massive, momentum-shifting movement three off a flare screen or behind a Kyle Anderson pin-in; the next he'd barrel into a crowd without a plan and pick up a charge. One possession he'd curl off a Rudy Gobert veer screen, attack fluidly off the catch, and glide in for a smooth finish; the next he'd try to get a jump-shooting foul call and wind up getting whistled for leading with his elbow.

Three of his six fouls were of the offensive variety, which fits an old playoff pattern for him. He had a couple ticky-tack calls go against him - none more galling than the sixth he picked up on a leaning Luka 3-point attempt - but it was his inability to control his limbs earlier in the game that put him in position to foul out. He finished with one assist to four turnovers. His high-walling ball-screen coverage remained shaky, and the Mavs and P.J. Washington have gotten better at attacking his sluggish recoveries as the series goes on.

David Sherman / NBA / Getty

For all that, the positives still vastly outweighed the negatives in Game 4, and the Wolves with even a marginally more disciplined version of that Towns have a good chance to keep extending this series. They desperately need him to continue taking offensive pressure off an overtaxed Anthony Edwards. Even when Towns couldn't buy a jumper or find his way to the rim in the first three games, Minnesota still relied on him to space the floor, to see and pass over the Mavs' rangy defense, and to serve as a conduit to Gobert in 4-5 pick-and-rolls. The team still cratered offensively any time he and Edwards sat at the same time, which is something Chris Finch must avoid at all costs for the rest of the series.

The thing is, you simply never know what flavor of mixed bag you're going to get from one of the most maddeningly gifted 7-footers of his age. Every poor shooting performance, every questionable decision, every ill-timed blunder invokes Towns' history of pressing or disappearing in big spots. And the stakes and scrutiny coloring every moment are brighter than ever right now, not only because we're in the conference finals but because of questions about Towns' future in Minnesota that have been burbling under the surface since last season.

Those questions will continue to simmer unless (and possibly even if) the Wolves become the first team in NBA history to win a series from 3-0 down. All year, the impending luxury-tax crunch coming Minnesota's way has loomed on the horizon, and Towns - whose four-year, $220-million extension kicks in next season - feels like the piece of financial baggage most likely to be shed if the organization decides it has to get leaner. Not just because of his salary, but because of what the Wolves would be able to get for him in a trade. The fact they went 14-6 without him down the stretch only added fuel to that fire.

Part of what made Towns' meniscus tear so dispiriting when it happened was that it wasn't clear at the time whether he'd be able to make it back, and Minnesota was at risk of losing another precious opportunity to prove that its unconventional roster build could work in the postseason. But Towns did make it back - looking hardly any worse for wear - and the Wolves did prove they're built for playoff success. Feel however you want about the way they've played against Dallas, but it'd be ridiculous to draw any other conclusion about a team that embarrassed Kevin Durant and Devin Booker and then dethroned the defending champs (who also came into this postseason as prohibitive West favorites).

Through good times and bad, Towns is as big a part of the Wolves' identity as anyone. They aren't where they are if not for his adaptability; the way he's shape-shifted to both complement Edwards and fit next to Gobert at both ends of the floor. The power-forward spot is often the hinge on which a team's identity swings, and this gigantic squad wouldn't feel quite the same with Jaden McDaniels or Naz Reid starting at the four.

So, as we look toward Game 5 and perhaps beyond, Towns may be playing not only for his own future in Minnesota, but for Minnesota's future as the style of team it is now. And, you know, for a shot at history. No pressure.

Daily Newsletter

Get the latest trending sports news daily in your inbox