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Timberwolves pleased with season that ended too early, but know improvement is mandatory

Unlike the last time Minnesota reached the playoffs in 2018 — this exit feels more like a beginning than an end

NBA: Playoffs-Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves
Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) hugs Minnesota Timberwolves forward Anthony Edwards (1) in the fourth quarter during Game 6 of the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs on Friday at Target Center in Minneapolis.
Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports
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Chris Finch and Sachin Gupta — the two heads of the Timberwolves’ basketball brass — sat down with players for exit interviews Saturday morning, roughly 12 hours after the season concluded with a Game 6 loss to Memphis.

The informal chats featured some focus on basketball and plans for personal improvement in the offseason. Then there were personal conversations about topics such as what players’ plans were upon leaving Minnesota this week.

“Nobody had any,” Finch said.

They all expected to still be playing as of this weekend, and beyond. That’s the confidence this team carried throughout the regular season and into the playoffs. Minnesota fervently believed in the roster and culture it had cultivated. So in the wake of the Timberwolves’ 4-2 series loss to the Grizzlies, there was a bit of initial shock that the campaign had ended.

“I called our trainer this morning talking about lifting,” Karl-Anthony Towns said, “and I didn’t realize the season was over.”

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“I think it’s still pretty raw,” Gupta said, “and so there is quite a bit of disappointment.”

This, Patrick Beverley noted, wasn’t where Minnesota expected its season to end. He added the Timberwolves should’ve won five of the six games played in that first-round series with Memphis. Finch said Game 3 — in which the Wolves surrendered leads of 25 and 26 points — is one of those contests that will stick with him for the rest of his life.

But the bad taste that series left doesn’t detract from Minnesota’s many accomplishments. Gupta listed those off Saturday, from doubling the team’s win total from the season prior to exceeding the oddsmakers’ preseason win projection by double-digit victories to making the playoffs.

“A lot of people they say the season was success. I agree,” Beverley said. “Overall a good year. We’ve done some things people didn’t think we were gonna do. We got better throughout the year. That’s all you can ask for.”

And unlike the last time Minnesota reached the playoffs in 2018 — this exit feels more like a beginning than an end.

“I think that this is the beginning of something special,” Towns said. “I feel like for one of the first times in this franchise where a lot of pieces are falling into place. It doesn’t feel so scrambled. It doesn’t feel so random. But we’ll see.”

Indeed, because as well positioned as Minnesota seems to be, nothing in the NBA is guaranteed. For one, ownership still has to confirm that Gupta will be the team’s permanent decision maker moving forward. The executive vice president of basketball operations received a strong vote of confidence from Finch on Saturday after Gupta led the Wolves with a steady hand all season.

Then there’s the NBA offseason, which always brings about winds of change. And even if everything stays relatively close to the status quo for the Timberwolves, the Western Conference will likely be tougher next year than it was this season. The Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets are two teams who will be expected to finish with more wins than Minnesota next season once Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. return to action.

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Gupta said Minnesota needs to take two steps forward, while other teams take one.

“There’s definitely teams that’ll be rising up,” Finch said. “There’s also those teams that end up kind of puking on themselves, and we just can’t be one of them.”

There is always a natural assumption that a young team will make another leap the year after a playoff appearance. The postseason exposes warts and teaches lessons. You use those lessons to make improvements and continue your climb up the ladder.

“You can see with the Memphis Grizzlies. That’s a prime example, from the play-in to playing Utah (last year), coming up short to being the No. 2 team in the league right now,” Beverley said. “I think experience is always learned through the playoffs, and we had some battles, man. I smile at things that we can learn from this playoff experience. A lot of leads that didn’t go our way, that we kind of let go, that comes from experience, also. Pretty excited. Bummed out, of course, but excited.”

But that jump isn’t automatic. Finch noted those lessons need to be put into practice. Some of that will happen next training camp and during the regular season, as the Timberwolves aim to develop better habits as a team that can sustain when pressed come playoff time. But there’s also the work that needs to be done this offseason. Players need to add skills to their game and improve their bodies.

This season, Finch said “has to just be a foundation.”

“We can’t expect that when we get back together in September that we’re just going to pick up where we left off because that’s not how it works at all,” he said. “It goes back to the point about preparing in the right way. That starts in the summer when we do start to go back to work individually. I think guys now have a feel that having played in the playoffs, the excitement, the fans. The competition. All that stuff has whet their appetite to the point where they want more of it. But to your point, it’s not going to just happen. We’re going to have expectations.”

Gupta could sense a hunger in players after they got a small taste of the postseason this month. Anthony Edwards said the playoffs were “extremely fun,” adding that he is “looking to be there for the rest of my career.”

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It will probably be even harder next season, as Minnesota will sneak up on no one. After receiving just two nationally-televised games on TNT or ESPN during the regular season, there will be more buzz about this team next season. The Wolves will be scouted harder and circled on schedules.

“You want that hype, you want all of that. But it’s got to play out to where we’re ready for that. We’re ready for that, versus we think we’re ready and we haven’t made the strides we’re supposed to make,” D’Angelo Russell said. “And then we become just a story that was good last year, and not that good this year. So we’re trying not to be that, and like I said, it just comes down to everybody going away this summer, getting better, and whoever comes back, adding to that.”

That mentality is why, even after realizing this season had officially come to a close, Towns said he did still plan to get that workout in Saturday.

“Because next season starts now,” he said. “And I got to get ready.”

NBA: Playoffs-Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) dunks against the Memphis Grizzlies in the fourth quarter during Game 6 of the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs at Target Center in Minneapolis.
Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports

Related Topics: MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
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