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Zulgad: Push comes to shove: Anthony Edwards shows he won’t back from Jimmy Butler or Heat

NBA: Miami Heat at Minnesota Timberwolves
Nov 24, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) and Minnesota Timberwolves forward Anthony Edwards (1) exchange some actions before each receiving a technical foul in the third quarter as referee Andy Nagy (83) and forward Caleb Martin (16) step in at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Edwards’ biggest statement in the Timberwolves’ 113-101 victory over the Miami Heat on Friday night at Target Center wasn’t his 33 points. Those were key to his team’s fifth-consecutive win, as were his 14 rebounds and six assists, but Edwards’ signature moment came late in the third quarter on a play in which he was called for traveling with the Wolves leading by two.

Miami’s Jimmy Butler decided he was going to swipe the ball out of Edwards’ grasp after the whistle had blown. This was typical behavior by Butler and something the Wolves had become accustomed to when he spent a tumultuous one season and 10 games proving to himself that Karl-Anthony Towns and Co., were too soft to deserve his presence.

Butler had been the bully of Target Center then and, as far as he was concerned, nothing had changed.

Only the 20-year-old Edwards was having none of it. Butler grabbed the ball and Edwards responded with a left-handed shove to Butler’s back. Butler attempted to get into Edwards’ face as players from both teams converged and technical fouls were given to each.

The whole thing was over in seconds, but that didn’t make it any less important to Wolves fans who had spent the night booing Butler each time he touched the ball and chanting the name of former ESPN reporter Rachel Nichols, whom Butler set up an interview with following his orchestrated meltdown during a practice in October 2018 that was part of his plan to escape Minnesota.

Edwards had done the one thing that Towns, and any other Wolves player at that time, failed to do. He stood up to Butler and showed that these Wolves aren’t going to be pushed around. The Wolves outscored the Heat, 30-20, from that point on.

Edwards arrived in Minnesota as the first-overall pick in the 2020 draft, two seasons after Butler departed.

The fact that Edwards seems to play the game with intensity and joy — as opposed to Butler’s intensity and anger — makes him far easier to like but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be a pushover. He showed that time and time again on Friday night before a boisterous night-before-Thanksgiving gathering of 17,136 who displayed the type of passion the Wolves can receive when they are playing well.

In a game in which veteran leader Patrick Beverley left in the first quarter because of an injury to his left leg and in which Towns played only 4 minutes, 32 seconds of the opening half after picking up three fouls, Edwards, D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley led the way. Russell scored 15 of his 20 points in the second half and also had six assists. Beasley finished with a season-high 29 points off the bench and made 5-of-13 three-pointers as the Wolves rallied from an eight-point deficit at halftime.

Towns had only one foul in the second half and contributed with some solid defensive play. He was a plus-21 but had only 11 points, six rebounds and four assists. Jarred Vanderbilt contributed a game-high 15 rebounds, but it was Edwards who was the star of this show.

“He took over the game. Simple as that,” Russell said. “He was guarding, he was moving, he was boxing, he was rebounding. I think we’re watching him grow in front of us, just all around.”

Edwards had 17 points, six rebounds and an assist in the first half and 16 points, eight rebounds and five assists in the second. He managed to create even more energy in the building with his shove of Butler, and then there was the thunderous dunk that didn’t count on the scoreboard but certainly did in the minds of the players on both teams, as well as the fans.

This one came early in the fourth quarter when Edwards made a backdoor cut, took a pass and flew toward the basket with no concern for who might be in his way. The defender happened to be Miami’s Gabe Vincent and he ended up playing the role of speed bump as Edwards knocked him down and then stared him down as he lay on the floor.

Wolves players erupted, as did the fans in Target Center. Edwards was called for an offensive foul, but that didn’t erase the fact that he was now in charge of this game and there was little the Heat could do about it.

You had to wonder if Butler was suppressing a grin. This was exactly what he wanted from Towns and Andrew Wiggins when he was with the Wolves. He never got it and eventually decided he had to get out of town. Butler had helped the Wolves to the playoffs in his only full season in Minnesota and his departure derailed a plan that was supposed to make him a focus of the franchise for years to come.

Wolves fans showed again on Wednesday that they haven’t forgiven him. Edwards, however, did the one thing that the fans, and Towns, couldn’t or wouldn’t do. He pushed back and even though it was a small shove it provided plenty of satisfaction for many.