If Karl-Anthony Towns Doesn’t Deliver, There Will Be a Reckoning in Minnesota

The Timberwolves All-Star center has become a one-dimensional jump shooter in the Western Conference finals as the Mavericks are one win away from a sweep.
Towns must step up for the Timberwolves to have any chance to beat the Mavericks in the West finals.
Towns must step up for the Timberwolves to have any chance to beat the Mavericks in the West finals. / Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The game was over, the season nearly lost and yet somehow, some way, Karl-Anthony Towns made it worse. This Western Conference finals has been a disaster for Towns, whose scoring has plummeted and shooting percentages have bottomed out. The Dallas Mavericks have been tougher than Towns, more physical, pushing him deeper and deeper out onto the perimeter, turning the 7-foot, 248-pound Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star into a one-dimensional jump shooter, the kind his head coach, Chris Finch, admitted was “hard to watch.”

Towns could have taken ownership of this, could have done what his teammate, Anthony Edwards, did after a 27-point loss to the Denver Nuggets in the last round. “I’ll take the blame for this,” Edwards said then. Yet, there was Towns on Sunday, surrounded by reporters after a 5-for-18 Game 3 stinker, rewriting history in real time after Minnesota fell into a 0–3 hole in the series.

“I got to laugh,” Towns said. “I’m putting up to 1,500 shots a day and shot so well all playoffs. Confidence is extremely high and to be having these unfortunate bounces and these looks that are just not going in, it’s tough.”

Whatever. Maybe Towns is tossing up 1,500 shots a day between games. Nobody believes him—“KAT capping right now,” Draymond Green said on the TNT telecast—but more importantly, no one cares. Towns may be owning Minnesota’s off days, but in games, he is coming up woefully short.

This isn’t about bad bounces or near misses. In the conference finals, Towns is simply playing soft. Dallas is a physical team but not an especially big one. Sure, Towns has found himself matched up with Daniel Gafford or Dereck Lively II. But just as often it’s P.J. Washington, Luka Dončić and even Kyrie Irving muscling him off the block.

“We’re trying to score, trying to shoot our best, especially myself, take accountability,” Towns said. “Just the game’s not fun when it’s going like that.”

There are young faces in that Minnesota locker room, from Edwards to Naz Reid, Jaden McDaniels to Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Towns isn’t one of them. At 28, Towns is an elder statesman. His playoff résumé is thin, but after nine NBA seasons, he should know what it takes to succeed there.

No team in NBA history has rallied to win four straight in a series, but make no mistake: If Towns continues to play like this, Minnesota won’t get one. There have been flashes, like the brief third-quarter stretch Sunday when Towns dropped his shoulder and barreled his way to the rim. That’s the player Towns’s teammates need more of, the guy who ignores the three-point line instead of camping out behind it.

Towns shoots against Gafford during Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
Dallas has forced Towns out to the perimeter all series long. / Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

“We need him to be active all around the rim,” Mike Conley said. “We need him to be active in the paint. We need him finishing over their bigs and through contact because his game shouldn’t be predicated on if he makes or misses threes. We have plenty of guys that can hold it down and knock down shots for our team on the outside.”

This has been a superb season for Minnesota, but there will be a reckoning after. Dallas is proof—if you’re not evolving, you’re not winning. Two years ago, the Mavs played in the conference finals, falling to the Golden State Warriors in five games. Only five players remain from that team and just two, Dončić and Josh Green, who are making a real impact. That 2022 series educated Dallas on what it needed to get to the next level. For Minnesota, this series could do the same.

Edwards is a superstar, Reid is on the rise and McDaniels is a ferocious perimeter defender. That trio isn’t going anywhere and Rudy Gobert, with two years left on his contract, is too tricky to trade. That leaves Towns. If Minnesota can’t win with him, the Timberwolves front office likely will look around to see if Towns can bring back players who can.

Facing elimination, Minnesota’s confidence remains remarkably strong. The Timberwolves lost Game 2 on a Dončić dagger and held a lead in Game 3 with five minutes to play. “It’s more frustrating than it is anything,” Conley said. “Because we know how good of a team we have.” The last time they faced elimination, they tattooed the Nuggets. They know the Mavericks will try to put them away early Tuesday, but Dallas could also be without Lively, who took a brutal knee to the back of the head in Game 3 and his status in this series moving forward is uncertain.

“They’ve made the plays on both ends to win the games,” Conley said. “They’ve just done a really good job of that in the last three, four minutes of the games. [It’s] something that we know we have to do better if we’re going to have a chance to win.”

There are playmakers on this Timberwolves roster, and Towns is one of them. He’s proud of his jump shot, but right now, Minnesota doesn’t need it. The Timberwolves need the strong Towns, the physical Towns, the player who averaged nearly 20 points in the first round and battled Nikola Jokić in the second. They need playoff Towns. More dunks, fewer floaters. More drives, fewer threes. If Dallas goes small, Towns must make them pay for it. Talk is cheap. For Towns, it’s time to deliver.


Published
Chris Mannix

CHRIS MANNIX

Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix has boxed with Juan Manuel Marquez, played guard in the NBA's D-League and even tried his hand at bull riding at the Sankey Rodeo School in Martin, Tenn. The latter assignment left him with a bunch of bruises and a fractured collarbone. "I liked all the first-person experiences, but fighting Juan was my favorite assignment for SI," says Mannix. "It was a tremendous experience that required brutal training and introduced me to a fear I never knew I had." Mannix has covered the NBA since he arrived at SI in 2003. He currently writes columns and profiles in the magazine and for SI.com and also serves as SI's NBA draft expert. Among the NBA stars he has profiled: Chris Bosh, Russell Westbrook and Andrei Kirilenko. As a teenager Mannix was a locker room attendant with the Boston Celtics for eight seasons (1995-2003) and covered high school sports for the Boston Globe. "Working for the Celtics was like attending a different fantasy camp every game. I spent pregames D'ing up the likes of Tracy McGrady, Ray Allen and yes, Michael Jordan. Last time I went one-on-one with MJ he beat me 48-0. I got one shot off … and it was blocked." Boxing is also one of Mannix's specialties. He has reported for SI on several championship fights, annually hands out SI.com's boxing awards and writes the website's "Inside Boxing" column. Mannix won the 2012 Boxing Writers Association of America's awards for Best Feature over 1,750 words and Best Feature under 1,750 words. In addition to his duties at SI, Mannix serves as host of The Chris Mannix Show on NBC Sports Radio (Sundays 6–9 p.m. ET) and is a co-host of Voices of the Game, with Newy Scruggs every Wednesday from Noon–3 p.m. ET. In addition, Mannix is a ringside reporter for Epix and Fight Night on NBC and NBC Sports Network, and is a regular guest and fill-in host on The Dan Patrick Show and The Crossover on NBC Sports Network. He also regularly appears on sports radio shows across the country, including weekly appearances in Miami, Orlando and Salt Lake City.  Mannix received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Boston College in 2003 and graduated from Boston College High School in 1998 (which makes him a double Eagle). He resides in New York City.