As one of the longest-tenured Minnesota Timberwolves, Naz Reid has been asked several times this season to explain why this is the team that has gotten off to the best start in franchise history, why they keep finding ways to pull out victories that they would have lost in the past.
Reid has seen players, coaches and executives come and go. He has seen losses of all shapes and sizes, both understandable and unfathomable, and lamented them all. But this season has been different, and few are more qualified to offer perspective on what has changed within the Timberwolves than the fifth-year big man. His go-to answer has been a newfound maturity and a joint sense of purpose that has not often been there during his time in Minnesota.
He describes a group that has, for the most part, secured their contracts and handled their business. With all of that out of the way, they are not clouded by the thirst for stats or the need to make names for themselves in the league. Instead, to this point in the season, the Timberwolves have been defined by a selflessness and resilience that has kept the focus on the collective.
Few players on the roster embody that spirit more than Troy Brown Jr. He was the first signee of the summer for president of basketball operations Tim Connelly, who was in the market for a versatile wing to help replace Taurean Prince. After watching his playing time dwindle as the Los Angeles Lakers got deeper into the playoffs last season, Brown left to sign a two-year, $8 million deal with Minnesota. His conversations with Connelly and coach Chris Finch in the lead-up to his signing did not guarantee heavy minutes for him with the Wolves, but Brown thought he checked a lot of the boxes Finch told him they needed to be filled.
Finch told him these Wolves needed a wing defender who could make plays on offense, hit the open, catch-and-shoot 3-pointer and rebound.
“I feel like all those things are coming together as the season is going,” Brown said.
Wolves leadership sold him on a plan to have a rotation spot on a team that had designs on making a playoff run, but the minutes have been spotty for him through the early portion of the season. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Shake Milton have been the first two guards off the bench, though NAW has been starting recently for the injured Jaden McDaniels.
The 6-foot-6 Brown has had to patiently bide his time this season. He drew four DNPs in the first 16 games and saw only garbage time minutes in several others. But rather than sulk or pout or point fingers, Brown hung in there and waited for his turn.
It came on Tuesday night against Oklahoma City in a game featuring the top two teams in the Western Conference. With McDaniels out with an ankle injury, Jordan McLaughlin still recovering from a torn meniscus and Anthony Edwards leaving late in the third quarter with a hip contusion, Finch turned to Brown, who scored 12 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter to help rally the Wolves to a 106-103 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in a thrilling game.
“Y’all see it. He went from situations where he wasn’t seeing minutes to now put himself in a situation to get as much minutes as possible because of his work,” Reid said. “And he’s dedicated. … He’s willing. The effort is there.”
After scoring 37 in the previous 16 games combined, Brown provided a huge offensive spark to help fill the shoes of Edwards’ departure. Edwards suffered a right hip contusion when he took a hard fall late in the third quarter while trying to dunk over Jaylin Williams. He stayed in the game to shoot free throws but had to come out shortly after that with significant discomfort in his leg and hip.
Edwards has been so integral to the Timberwolves this season, particularly on offense. The Wolves’ net rating with him on the court is a staggering 23.6 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass. The offense craters when Edwards sits, 18.1 points per 100 lower than when he plays.
Out of that chaos, the Troy Brown Jr. Game was born. He went 5 of 6 from the field, including 3 of 4 from 3-point range, and there were some daggers in those shots.
“He’s a lot better shooter than I thought he was,” Finch said. “We knew he could shoot, but he’s one of those guys when he catches the ball and lets it fly, I think it’s going in automatically.”
Troy showed up big time. 💪
17 PTS / 3 REB pic.twitter.com/AUULvyzzqw
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 29, 2023
His deep 3 with 1 minute, 39 seconds to play gave the Wolves a 101-96 lead. After the indomitable Thunder got their deficit back down to three, Brown uncharacteristically drove for an acrobatic layup that again put them up five with 31.6 seconds to play.
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) November 29, 2023
“I’ve had my ups and downs in the career,” said Brown, who has also played for Washington, Chicago and the Los Angeles Lakers. “Just being in different positions and learning how to deal with all that mentally has helped me a lot. Now I just try to be as happy as I can and bring energy to my teammates and stay ready.”
The Wolves are ecstatic to have him. He did not complain when his playing time wasn’t coming with regularity. He bided his time, tried to make an impression in training camp and practices and was determined to remain as ready as possible when that call finally did come.
Keeping mentally engaged when the minutes are not coming can be a real challenge, but Brown stayed in it. When McDaniels injured his ankle, the door opened a bit for Brown. When Milton started to struggle to find an offensive rhythm, it opened even wider. Brown scored 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds in a loss to Sacramento last week, but the energy he played with caught Finch’s attention. When Edwards went down on Tuesday night in a game the Wolves trailed in for most of three quarters, Finch almost had no choice but to go to him.
“I love coaching him because he’s just the same mood every day,” Finch said. “He’s happy whether he’s in the rotation or not. He’s patient. He understands. He gets it.”
He was needed more than ever against a Thunder team that came into the night in second place in the West. OKC jumped all over the Wolves in the first quarter, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hitting all six of his shots to help the Thunder build a 10-point lead that grew to 12 in the second.
The Timberwolves shot 39 percent in the first half, turned the ball over 11 times and couldn’t slow down OKC’s rhythm. The Thunder racked up 61 points and shot 54 percent from the field in the first half.
In the second half, Edwards got rolling with 12 of his 21 points before he was injured. Finch tried to stick with the flailing Milton in replacement of Edwards, but he had two costly turnovers as the Wolves clawed their way back into the game by rediscovering the defensive mindset that had fueled their hot start.
Rudy Gobert started to put the clamps on Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren, a Minneapolis native playing in his hometown as a pro for the first time. Holmgren had nine points, five rebounds and five assists in the first half, but Finch adjusted and threw a zone defense at the Thunder that appeared to confuse them for long stretches of the second half.
It was quite a battle between Gobert and Holmgren, who was able to throw down a dunk over the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. But Holmgren was just 6 of 20 for 16 points in the game. Watch Gobert put him in the torture chamber on this possession and then pump his fist mid-possession when he forces the ball out of Holmgren’s hands.
Rudy Gobert terrorizing Chet Holmgren, incredible defense pic.twitter.com/AdERYphHOk
— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) November 29, 2023
“I love when a guy tries to attack me, especially multiple times in a row,” said Gobert, who had 17 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks. “And credit to Chet, because he kept going. He kept going, you know? Yeah, he was being aggressive and pushed me to really move my feet even more, and I did.”
The Wolves held the Thunder to 42 points and 30 percent shooting in the second half. After starting the game with 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting in the first half, Gilgeous-Alexander had 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting in the second while being guarded by his cousin, Alexander-Walker, and Brown.
The victory allowed the Wolves (13-4) to remain in first place in the Western Conference. They outrebounded the smaller Thunder 51-36 and outscored them 19-4 in second-chance points.
In a jubilant locker room after the game, Edwards hollered about Brown’s performance and laughed as he told his teammates they better enjoy the extra shots they are getting while he is out. He was so sore that he couldn’t put his sock on his right foot, but appears to have avoided a serious injury.
Finch was most pleased with Gobert’s impact on defense and Brown’s professionalism. He told a story about approaching Brown recently and asking him to “bear with us” as they tried to find him some consistent minutes.
“I’m cool, coach,” Brown told Finch. “I’m ready. I’ll be ready.”
The time came on Tuesday night, and all Brown did was help deliver perhaps the Wolves’ best win of the season. With timely performances like that, there will be plenty more victories where that came from.
“The more guys you have like that on your team, obviously the more it helps your maturity and that’s been a big goal for us,” Finch said. “So we had to get more guys who are willing to accept those kind of inconsistent roles.”
(Photo of Troy Brown Jr.: David Sherman / NBAE via Getty Images)