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NBA

The Timberwolves Have Not Yet Surprised Themselves

Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns sit at the post-game press conference.
Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Champions, in the NBA, almost never arrive from obscurity. The recently defeated champs, the Denver Nuggets, were a good team for five years and a playoff team for four, and had already made a conference finals, before they completed their 2023 summit push. The Milwaukee Bucks made four straight playoffs and a conference finals before winning it all in 2021. Even the Toronto Raptors, who I think are generally remembered as a sort of lightning-strike of a champion, had made the playoffs five straight years and lost a conference finals before Kawhi Leonard led them to a title in his one season north of the border.

Generally speaking, before an NBA team can win the whole thing, they have to learn how to manage a series, and then how to string a few of those together, and there's usually someone more established to cast down or even to dethrone along the way. The last real out-of-nowhere champion might've been the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers, who hadn't made the playoffs in their first six years of existence before winning it all in their seventh, notably immediately following a major coup in the ABA dispersal draft and during a season of reasonably decent injury luck for centerpiece and MVP-in-waiting Bill Walton. For better or worse, the NBA playoffs for the most part deliver expected outcomes; you usually need to have achieved as a team a level of refined excellence before you can win the whole shit, and it's hard to hit that level of refinement without anyone having noticed.

I imagine that is what one NBA reporter was thinking Sunday night, at the postgame press conference, when he asked Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards, both very silly-headed with the joy of victory, about having perhaps skipped some steps in the usual trajectory of an up-and-coming playoff team:

Q: Usually NBA history says you have to lose and lose big in order to win. What is it about this team that says—

Towns: We lost last year!

Q: But that’s different. You have to lose at a bigger stage, usually. Teams—

Towns: It’s the playoffs, we lost last year! 

Edwards: We lost the last two years, shit. 

Towns: Goddamn! How much more we gotta lose?

Edwards: How much you want us to lose?

Towns: We’ve been losing for 20 years!

Edwards: I mean that’s just the truth, dog.

Towns: Goddamn!

If you squint very hard and tilt your head just so, you can kind of go there: NBA fans are used to not taking the Timberwolves seriously, at all. It's been easy to wrap up their last two years of playoff exits into a longer-term picture of a franchise you can afford to ignore. Not anymore: The Wolves competed for the West's top seed this season, then prevailed convincingly over two teams we've been conditioned to take seriously. They have now eliminated, in order, a ballyhooed superteam core assembled atop a playoff squad that several years ago climbed out of this same developmental position, and then the defending NBA champions. And this is not the deeply Mickey Mouse-ified conference finals run of the Indiana Pacers, who have needed 13 games to advance past two teams with a combined one-and-a-half healthy players. The Wolves had an excellent regular season; they have the NBA's best defense; they are athletically overwhelming; they have indomitable stars; they have killer role-players; they have a coach who pushes the right buttons even when he cannot stand. It may be disorienting, but the Timberwolves are good now. They are in a position where they are supposed to win a series or two.

As Towns identifies in his bug-eyed response to the question, this push into the conference finals is the logical next developmental step. They've already been beaten back by this challenge, twice. But in terms of perception, this is a team going from long-range Clown Mode all the way to Serious. Maybe there's something in the giggly thrilled-to-be-here vibes radiating off Towns and Edwards Sunday night to indicate to a hoops-knower that this team has now hit the peak of what is possible without the sting of another rite-of-passage defeat; perhaps the Mavericks or Celtics, both of whom employ main guys who've already made or even won the Finals, will rudely smush into these goofballs the final hardening lesson. That's tomorrow's problem! For now, the Wolves are right on schedule, and doing fine. You can forgive an observer for needing to be reminded both that they've already paid some dues, and also that they have not yet reached the mountaintop.

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