Anthony Edwards and the Timberwolves bring maturity into playoff rematch with Nuggets

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards celebrates a foul against the Phoenix Suns during the first half of Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Sunday, April 28, 2024, in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo)

MINNEAPOLIS — The ball left Anthony Edwards’ right hand and bounced off the back rim at the buzzer, sending him sprinting off the court in anger over his miss of a tying 3-point try for Minnesota that preserved a series-clinching Game 5 victory for eventual NBA champion Denver.

Edwards and the Timberwolves have worked tirelessly since that moment to become more than a one-and-done team, and their measuring stick has arrived.

They’ll return to the same arena where their season ended a year ago, in the second round this time, and face a Nuggets team raring to defend its title. Game 1 is Saturday.

If the Timberwolves knock down the Nuggets, it will likely be a product of Edwards’ brilliance. His 31-point second half last week that propelled them to a sweep-completing victory at Phoenix was his latest masterpiece, not simply as a scorer, but as a passer, a defender and a leader.

“The second half, it’s time to win,” Edwards said after posting his second career 40-point game in the playoffs among the four in franchise history. “I’ve got to shoot my shots and keep confidence in myself.”

The elevation of Edwards’ stature has been occurring as quickly as any other player in the NBA, as evidenced in most commercial breaks during the playoffs when the 22-year-old appears in back-to-back ads for Bose and Sprite.

The league announced Tuesday that Edwards had generated more than 100 million video views across its social and digital platforms, behind only LeBron James (130 million), and gained the most Instagram followers by any player since the postseason began. Edwards will also be one of the leaders for Team USA at the Paris Olympics this summer.

But he’s the last player the Timberwolves would worry about being waylaid by such surging fame.

“You don’t like to call him ‘old soul,’” assistant coach Micah Nori said, “but he’s been through a lot in his life. He’s been around a lot of situations. He’s grown up quickly.”

Few star players can entrench themselves in the desirable middle between destructive arrogance and detrimental deference the way Edwards has, delivering in clutch situations with supreme belief in his ability yet constantly pivoting to praise teammates or a coach when his success is publicly broached.

“Everybody in here has been a part of his growth and his development,” point guard Mike Conley said. “When we’re in film sessions, we’re constantly in each other’s ear. If he’s about to explode about Coach saying something bad to him, I’ll tap him on the shoulder and be like, ‘No, chill. You need to hear this. This is real. He’s being honest with this one, and you need to work on it.’ And he’ll be like, ‘Bet.’ Just kind of really receptive to stuff.”

That has taken some time.

Edwards was fined $40,000 by the league before the 2022-23 season began for disparaging and homophobic comments he made in a social media post.

During his frustrated hustle off the court after the loss in Denver a year ago, he chucked a chair that was in his way — prompting later-dismissed misdemeanour assault charges by two bystanders who claimed injury and, ultimately, a $50,000 fine from the NBA.

Inside team headquarters, the first overall pick in the 2020 draft was slow to mesh with coach Chris Finch after he was hired midway through Edwards’ rookie season. The two-time All-Star said recently their relationship was initially “up and down” because of how often Finch was telling him what not to do with the ball in his hand.

“When you tell me something works and I’ll try it and it works, I can’t fight you,” Edwards said. “So pretty much, he just told me, like, ‘These are the spots. This is what we need you to do in order for us to win at a high level.’ Ever since then, probably the end of my second year, going into those playoffs, we gained each other’s trust. We took off ever since then.”

Now, Edwards is far more inclined to make the “right play,” as Nori put it, in the face of frequent double-teams.

“He just has a focused mentality on the game of basketball,” teammate Karl-Anthony Towns said. “All of us, we’re going to keep him accountable and focused. But for him personally, he’s already a step ahead.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.