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T-Wolves built contender around big idea by Connelly, who Nuggets know well

Tim Connelly Glen Taylor Minnesota Timberwolves Tim Connelly Glen Taylor - The Canadian Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Tim Connelly made his first major move for the Minnesota Timberwolves after about six weeks on the job, a bold get of center Rudy Gobert that was as risky as it was unconventional.

Going big has been no small part of this breakthrough season — and dominant start to the playoffs — for the Timberwolves. They take a 2-0 lead over Denver into Game 3 of the second-round series Friday night.

“I think when Tim Connelly made that trade, everybody was laughing at him like, ‘What is he doing?’ But he made a great team,” Nuggets center Nikola Jokic said. “I think he deserves the credit for doing that, and of course, the coaching staff are making sure things are working. And I think they are a really dangerous team."

Jokic and the defending NBA champions knew that well before losing the first two games of this Western Conference semifinal series in humbling fashion to a team, like theirs, that was assembled largely at Connelly's direction.

Over his nine seasons as general manager, the Nuggets found the three-time league MVP Jokic in the second round of the 2014 draft, made good on first-round picks with Jamal Murray (2016) and Michael Porter Jr. (2018) and acquired ace defender Aaron Gordon in a 2021 trade. Connelly also hired Mike Malone as coach in 2015 and watched with pride last summer when his close friend led the club to the franchise's first title.

After leaving for a new challenge and a big raise to be the president of basketball operations of the long-languishing Timberwolves, Connelly quickly went to work on a roster that featured a dynamic young guard in Anthony Edwards and an athletic big man in Karl-Anthony Towns.

The pressing goal of becoming a quality defensive team Connelly shared with his inherited head coach Chris Finch led them to Gobert, who was made available by Utah for the steep price of five first-round draft picks and five players.

Never mind that the NBA had become a game driven by athleticism, quickness and long-distance shooting. The Timberwolves were determined to make their pairing of 7-footers work, even after a rough first season for Gobert hampered by the long-term absence of Towns to a severely strained calf muscle.

“I just appreciate him believing in himself and his talent and his mind and building this team out for us to have the best chance to win, trusting that we would make this work,” Towns said.

Though his predecessor Gersson Rosas made the call on Edwards with the first overall pick in the 2020 draft that also yielded defensive stalwart Jaden McDaniels, a year after signing an undrafted Naz Reid, Connelly executed another deal that has been vital in this run by acquiring Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker for D'Angelo Russell in a three-team swap.

Gobert just won his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award. While he watched from afar to be with his girlfriend for the birth of their son, the Timberwolves stifled and flummoxed the Nuggets in a 106-80 win in Game 2 on Monday. McDaniels, Edwards and Alexander-Walker swarmed the ailing Murray on the perimeter. Towns and Reid made the paint awfully tough for Jokic.

The whole league was watching.

Former Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett posted on social media that this was the type of defense that could sell tickets, a trail-blazing trait akin to Golden State's 3-point shooting a decade ago. Jamal Crawford, another former Timberwolves player on the TNT broadcast team, joked during the second quarter that Reid was not supposed to play defense that well as the Sixth Man of the Year award winner.

Just like Connelly and his lieutenants drew it up two years ago?

“I could tell you we have these one, three and five-year plans. It’d be a lie,” Connelly said with a laugh before the series began. “In the NBA, there’s fluidity and things you didn’t expect to happen. You look at Denver, we tried to retain some guys we didn’t keep and got very fortunate with Aaron. Every day, especially around the draft or trade deadline and free agency, things change dramatically. We’re really lucky to have these unbelievable talented core pieces and try to build around them and support them.”

The success in Minnesota clearly affirms the value in being patient and sticking to a process, but as for the perceived win for outside-the-box thinking, well, good luck getting Connelly to acknowledge that.

“It’s just hypothesis. I’m just guessing. You never know. You make a trade, you sign somebody, you draft somebody, you hope it works,” Connelly said. “So I don't know. Validation would probably give our group too much credit. But we felt pretty convicted that we had the cultural DNA to be a good team. We thought we had the talent. We knew we had an elite coaching staff. Could we grow up a little bit around the edges? Could we not expose ourselves to so many self-faults and unforced errors? And I think we’ve done that for the most part all season.”


AP Sports Writer Arnie Stapleton in Denver contributed to this report.