Timberwolves-Lakers: Learning to embrace bad games

Image courtesy of Erik Drost via Wikimedia Commons.

To fully understand what made the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves play-in matchup excellent entertainment, even though the basketball was lackluster, one must go far beyond the game’s tipoff. 

It all started more than three years ago with the touching of press-row microphones—that’s when the legend of Rudy Gobert’s questionable judgment was born. The day was March 9, 2020; the imminent crisis was COVID-19. Gobert had just completed a post-game press conference when he decided to act defiantly against the virus threatening the NBA’s season. As he walked out of the room, Gobert stopped as if he had forgotten something and went back to the podium only to run his hands across the microphones, grinning, amused with his antics. Two days later, Gobert became the first NBA player to test positive for the virus, catalyzing the league’s shutdown and turning himself into the poster child for failing to take COVID seriously.

At the time, Gobert was an All-Star for the Utah Jazz. But even as the humiliation faded with time, his career with the Jazz slowly deteriorated. The team had talent: Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell were an ideal duo on paper. But the two never properly meshed. Utah would perform well in the regular season but disappoint in the playoffs without fail. Questions about Gobert and Mitchell’s shortcomings on the court were plentiful, some hinting at problems with their relationship off of the court. As times got tougher in Utah, these questions gained traction as the two stars’ relationship behind the scenes came to light. Eventually, the Jazz reached a breaking point. The team fired their head coach and accepted that the Gobert-Mitchell duo could no longer remain intact. Gobert, the older and seemingly more problematic of the two, was put on the trading block first. 

And while far from the ideal franchise player, Gobert boasts the accolades—three-time defensive player of the year—to make some teams willing to deal with the trouble. The Minnesota Timberwolves, ready to escape irrelevance, were more than willing. In exchange for Gobert, Minnesota sent a monumental haul of assets to Utah: five first-round draft picks and five players. The deal was massive not just because of its blockbuster nature in which the power structure of the Western Conference clearly changed, but also because of how seriously it committed the Timberwolves to the 30-year-old Gobert. Deals like these are like the NBA’s equivalent of a bank being “too big to fail.” They just have to work. To the team committing itself to one player, in this case the Timberwolves, the trade failing to meet expectations immediately becomes taboo. Because if it were to fail, Minnesota would pay dearly for mortgaging its future—all of its draft capital—on an aging, problematic Gobert. 

With Minnesota all in on Gobert, he instantly became the elephant in the room. His notoriety took a steep dive for the worse as the season progressed and the too-scary-to-consider reality started to materialize. Often, Gobert looked like a shell of his Utah self and was benched in crucial moments as the Timberwolves found their most efficient lineups without him. With their newly-acquired franchise centerpiece regressing, the Timberwolves failed to meet expectations in a wide-open Western Conference, finding themselves fighting for a spot in the playoffs instead of one in the conference’s top spots like many anticipated they would be.

Having established Gobert’s character and the stakes of it all, we can fast forward to the last day of the 2023 NBA regular season. Minnesota was playing the New Orleans Pelicans in a game that would decide who earned the eighth seed in the Western Conference and who finished ninth—an important difference because the eighth seed gets two opportunities to win one game in the play-in tournament to qualify for the postseason, while the ninth seed must win two consecutive games to earn the final spot in the playoffs. With the stakes as high as ever, all were on edge. 

During a timeout in the second quarter, Gobert and teammate Kyle Anderson got into a heated verbal exchange that ended with Gobert punching Anderson in the chest before the two were restrained by other players and staff. Gobert was sent home, and the Timberwolves were left to finish the most important game of their season without him.

And though Minnesota would win the game, matters worsened ahead of its now set matchup against the seventh seeded Los Angeles Lakers—forward and key contributor Jaden McDaniels was ruled out with a broken right hand after swinging at a wall in frustration during the game.

With Gobert suspended, McDaniels injured and the whole team rattled by distractions, the Timberwolves went into Los Angeles with seemingly everything working against them. Yet the Timberwolves found themselves leading by as much as 15 and with an opportunity to put the higher-seeded and home-team Lakers away. In the final six minutes of regulation and then yes, overtime, they proceeded to do the exact opposite in a truly spectacular manner.

Minnesota entered the fourth quarter leading by seven; a Mike Conley basket put the Timberwolves ahead 95-88 at the 6:01 mark, meaning the Timberwolves were halfway to successfully holding off the surging Lakers. The second half of the final quarter, however, was much less successful. Minnesota would not score again until only a tenth of a second remained and would not score another field goal until overtime. As Minnesota finished the quarter 0-8 from the field and turned the ball over four times in the same span, the Lakers just barely managed to be less worse. With 2:02 left, a LeBron James three-pointer tied the game at 95. (That’s seven points scored in four minutes. So impressive, I know.) The next two minutes featured four misses, three turnovers and zero points. And with only a second left in the game, James found Dennis Schröder open in the corner to surely seal the game for the Lakers. Somehow, someway, the Timberwolves had found a way to lose. That is, of course, until the Lakers’ Anthony Davis took the challenge of outdoing the Timberwolves hilarity to heart. With a 10th of a second to go, as Conley faded away from the court and clanked a three-point attempt that never had a chance off the backboard, Davis fouled him—the one thing the Lakers needed to avoid to secure a victory and a playoff spot.

So after six scoreless minutes, the Timberwolves weren’t dead quite yet. The veteran Conley got a lucky bounce on his first free throw—a missed free throw would have been too good to be true—and calmly swished the next two, sending the game into overtime. But for the Timberwolves, overtime was as far from a “new quarter, new us” reset as there can be: They scored four total points on two field goals, the furthest make coming from four feet away. Los Angeles continued to be just barely better and, more importantly, less stupid as the overtime period wore on. 

The Lakers won, but I’d argue there is a greater, more important lesson to be taken from all of this. Yes, the basketball was terrible. Just plainly blasphemous to the beautiful game Dr. James Naismith invented a couple hundred years ago. But I’d argue that the entertainment was maximized. The storylines were abundant and fans were kept on the edge of their seats all the way into overtime. Does it matter that none of the shots were going in? That professional basketball players could not complete basic chest passes to each other? That some of the game’s most important players were sidelined because they thought they were in the WWE? Maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t. Maybe the best 48-minute basketball game ever will be the one that ends with a score of 9-7. We can only hope to one day find out for ourselves.

So as the playoffs ramp up, I’m here to encourage you to not judge a game by its score or a team by its shooting percentages. Just chase entertainment in blissful ignorance and have more fun watching sports than you ever have.

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