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Zulgad: Wolves coach will make sure Karl-Anthony Towns is at “center of everything”

Timberwolves Knicks Basketball
Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns (32) shoots as New York Knicks’ RJ Barrett (9), Julius Randle (30) and Elfrid Payton (6) defend during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021, in New York. (Sarah Stier/Pool Photo via AP)

The assumption that Ryan Saunders still would have job security after the Wolves’ 103-99 loss to the Knicks on Sunday — an assumption that turned out to be incorrect — was based on one number. Five. That was the amount of games Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell had played together since the Wolves obtained the point guard from Golden State just over a year ago. In retrospect, we were looking at the wrong number. The correct one was seven.

That represented the games Towns had played since recovering from the coronavirus. The Wolves went 1-6 in that time, including four consecutive losses, and had an NBA-worst 7-24 record when Saunders was fired on Sunday. While we assumed that Gersson Rosas, the Wolves’ president of basketball operations, wanted to see Saunders get an extended opportunity to coach Towns and Russell, the reality was that Rosas saw enough by watching the team’s lack of success with Towns. Towns was averaging 22 points in 11 games (the Wolves were 3-8) after averaging 26.5 points in 35 games in a 2019-20 season that was cut short because of injury and the pandemic.

Is this the only reason Saunders was replaced by 51-year-old Toronto Raptors assistant Chris Finch? No. “The reality was it was really, really tough for the group over the last two weeks just not to maximize our opportunities and to evaluate our development of our young players, our development of our best players,” Rosas said. “Our ability to translate that to winning wasn’t happening. We had a group that was able to build leads, we didn’t have a group that was able to finish games and that’s something that became very concerning over the last two weeks. Our inability to be able to execute on that caused us to get to this point.”

Rosas is never going to put that much pressure or praise directly on Towns, but the NBA is a team game in name only. The championship-caliber clubs have superstars and, if the Wolves are ever going to go from laughingstock to contender, Towns is going to have to become a full-time force and not a guy who ends up looking like just a part of the plan at times.

Finch was Rosas’ choice in large part because their relationship dates to their time working together for the Rockets’ D-League team. Equally as important is that Finch has had success getting the most out of some big-name players on the offensive end. The list includes Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, James Harden, Nikola Jokic, Zion Williamson and Kyle Lowry.

“I was lucky to have some of the best (big men) in the league, from Anthony, to Marcus, to Jokic, to Zion as a rookie, Julius Randle was with us,” Finch said. “We’ve had a lot of skilled bigs, and I think the synergy and what we did with them and what we can do with KAT feels like a natural fit to me. I spoke with him last night. … It’s a tough moment for anyone when there’s a change in the organization, but we talked about how I think we can get him back to being the center point of this team. You don’t often get that type of skill package in this league. When you have it, and the way the game has trended, the modern game, with the spacing and the skill and the speed, he should be at the center of everything.”

If there was a key quote from Rosas and Finch’s press conference on Monday evening, that would be it. Towns has only played in 11 games this season because of a wrist injury and COVID-19, but Rosas had seen enough to know he wanted his head coach to get more from his max player and Finch’s past success with big men made him the top candidate. Towns always voiced his support for Saunders — Ryan’s father, Flip, was the man who drafted Towns first-overall for the Wolves in 2015, months before he passed away because of complications from cancer — but the fact that one of Finch’s first conversations on Sunday night was with Towns is very telling.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who hired Finch to help run Toronto’s offense this past December, praised his friend on Monday. “He was meticulous in his preparation going into each and every game from that side of the ball, you know just really no stone unturned about how this guy played that guy played,” Nurse said, according to Sports Illustrated. “So, I think that was a super high level we learned from him there.”

Finch will have his work cut out for him in Minnesota. There are 41 games left for the Wolves in this pandemic-shortened season and not much practice time to install a new system. The Wolves will play Tuesday night in Milwaukee and Wednesday in Chicago before having two days off. Finch acknowledged he won’t be able to make big changes at this point and brought up the fact he didn’t plan to overcoach.

Finch began his head coaching career in 1997 with the Sheffield Sharks of the British Basketball League and finally reached the NBA in 2011 after two seasons with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the D-League. His NBA resume includes assistant coaching stops in Houston (2011-16), Denver (2016-17), New Orleans (2017-20) and Toronto (this season).

This will be his first opportunity to run the show. It’s a daunting task filled with a variety  of challenges both short and long term. The easy part for Finch is there will be no confusion about his top priority: Making sure Towns is the featured player in the Wolves’ offense each night.