BOSTON — There are two buses that take teams to visiting arenas on game days. There is a pecking order to everything in the NBA, even transportation.
The first bus usually contains the trainers and support staff along with the guys at the end of the bench. These are your rookie second-round picks, your undrafted free agents, and your non-guaranteed contracts, who arrive early to get their work in before everyone else arrives. For whatever other status the second bus provides, most starters prefer to go through their routines closer to gametime when the energy in the arena is starting to build.
Karl-Anthony Towns takes the first bus. He does it before every road game, along with rookie Kris Dunn and second-year man Tyus Jones. Two-and-a-half hours before tip-off, Towns can be found on the court getting up shots for an audience of ushers and scoreboard operators.
He shoots from all over the court, launching 25-footers with as much ease as he does 5-foot hooks. Towns rarely jumps when he shoots. He shuffles his feet ever so slightly like an old man playing pop-a-shot. When he’s done, he sits down with assistant coaches and watches video.
Still just 21 years old, Towns has the work habits of a 10-year vet. Jones believes those habits were honed by watching Kevin Garnett during their brief time together. For whatever else KG brought to the Timberwolves, he showed the young pups how to work.
“He was the first one in the building even when he wasn’t playing,” Jones said of Garnett. “He’d have a full workout in even by the time anyone else got there. That rubbed off on KAT.”
It’s completely understandable if all of this sounds a bit too precocious. Towns is nothing if not earnest. Yet player after player praised his commitment and habits and it wasn’t just his young peers testifying for their guy. Even the vets, or what passes for vets on this roster, focused on Towns’ work ethic when describing what makes him tick.
From Cole Aldrich — “He comes in every day and puts his work in and finds a way to get better” — to Brandon Rush: “He works all the time. He’s in the gym non-stop and he wants to be one of the top players in the game.”
(In a life-comes-at-you-fast moment, Rush offered a great perspective on his freshly minted veteran status: “I’m the oldest guy on the court,” he said. “It’s weird. Yeah, it’s weird as hell. I take that in stride and go with it. I try to mentor the young fellas. They listen to me because they know I’ve been a part of winning teams. I had great vets so I’m trying to be a good vet.”)
All that work is paying off for Towns. He began his second season as a rising phenom and will end it with serious consideration for an All-NBA spot. We all may have expected that leap, but it shouldn’t be taken for granted. Towns has expanded his range beyond the 3-point line, improved his playmaking and scoring, and added to his post game. Before running out of gas in a loss to theCeltics on Wednesday, he had been averaging 27.6 points and 15.4 over his last 11 games.
“Every year I’m able to let more things out in my toolbag,” Towns said. “For me, experiencing how it is to win in the NBA, finding different ways to win.”
Right, winning. That’s been the biggest issue for the Wolves this year. Many a time they would build a nice lead and then inexplicably blow it in the final quarter. Their defense, which many believed would become a strength under first-year coach Tom Thibodeau, consistently let them down throughout the two thirds of the season. The obvious reason for all of that is they are the youngest team in the league.
“This is a unique situation,” Aldrich said. “Every other team that I’ve been on our quote unquote superstars have been older, established guys in the league. (Thibodeau) has the challenge of getting those guys over the hump to winning superstars. He’s one of those guys that can do that. It takes time and as much as we don’t want to be patient …”
Patience is good. Patience gets rewarded. Patience, however, rarely reveals itself. When it does, it can feel like a revelation as it has in the case of the Wolves surge over the last few weeks. They all insist that there was no a-ha moment. One week they were losing winnable games and the next they were grinding out victories. One win built on top of another and suddenly they were beating Utah on the road and the Clippers and Warriors at home.
As brilliant as Towns has been, and he’s been arguably the best big man in the league for the last month, the Wolves have also received stellar performances from Ricky Rubio and Andrew Wiggins. Thibodeau’s rotation has tightened up a bit and players are comfortable with their roles. Most importantly, their team defense has been among the elite for the last dozen games or so. What they’ve discovered is that winning is just another habit that can be learned through repetition.
“When things start to slow down, that’s why we’re able to come away with wins recently,” Towns said. “We’re seeing things a step ahead sometimes. We’re reacting. The biggest thing is we’re staying disciplined when the game is at crunch time in the fourth quarter.”
It’s probably too late to make a meaningful playoff push, but for both Towns and the Wolves, this stretch of games has been the culmination of a season-long quest for legitimacy. While remaining every bit the detail-oriented taskmaster he was in Chicago, Thibodeau did not allow the lackluster results to get in the way of his long-range vision for the club. When others fretted about their lack of tangible progress, Thibs was encouraged by their diligence.
“I never fooled myself that it was something other than it was,” Thibodeau said. “If you took a look at the numbers and you dive into the games and see how they unfolded from a year ago, you knew you weren’t close to winning. You had to improve.”
To Thibodeau, learning and improvement are the two pillars of his inaugural season in Minnesota. Having been outspent by the Lakers in an effort to landLuol Deng in the offseason, he and his general manager Scott Layden preferred to give the young roster room to breathe and grow up together. That may not have resulted in the postseason breakthrough many expected, but it’s made for a ton of teachable moments.
“There’s been a lot of learning,” Thibodeau said. “When you take a hard look at learning and how you learn, trial and error is a big part of it. You explain things, you have repetition in practice, and then you go out into the game and see if it can be executed. Each game reveals exactly where you are.”
Where the Wolves are is an interesting proposition. They will likely end up back in the lottery with another chance to nab another 20-something talent to a roster that is bursting with them. They will also have ample cap space to entice a veteran or two, but decisions will have to be made soon on a few internal matters.
Shabazz Muhammad is a restricted free agent and Wiggins and Zach LaVineare eligible for extensions in the offseason. It has not escaped notice that the Wolves’ defensive turnaround has taken place while LaVine has been out with a torn ACL. One wonders if the Wolves would be better served having LaVine assume a scoring sixth-man role when he returns next season.
The point guard situation also remains murky. Rubio has been phenomenal while Dunn has struggled. Despite his existence as a living trade rumor, Rubio still has two more years left on his contract at a favorable rate in these cap-inflated times. At the very least, Dunn has acquitted himself well on the defensive end. The Wolves could use help on the wing and more shooting, always more shooting.
For now, though, there is still more to learn and more to experience. Life on the playoff periphery may not have been the end goal many imagined and it won’t help end a 12-year postseason drought. It does make for some important and compelling basketball down the stretch.
“It makes it interesting,” Thibodeau allowed. “For us, I want to establish a routine. If you look ahead and you skip over steps that’s how you slip. Know your opponent well, have your routine established, and don’t get lost whether it’s praise, criticism, what’s ahead, what some people may view as daunting. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It only matters what we think and we believe.”
And so, Karl-Anthony Towns gets to work early. It’s his routine and it has served him well. He and the Wolves are progressing on their timetable and it’s happening right on schedule.