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Jaylen Nowell emerges as another closer for Timberwolves

Over the Timberwolves’ past 15 games, Nowell is shooting 53 percent from the field in the fourth quarter.

NBA: New York Knicks at Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jaylen Nowell (4) works around New York Knicks guard Immanuel Quickley (5) in the third quarter Dec. 28, 2021, at Target Center in Minneapolis
Bruce Kluckhohn / USA Today Sports
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In the heat of the battle under the brightest of lights, the Minnesota Timberwolves turned to an unexpected source of offense at Madison Square Garden in Tuesday’s win over the New York Knicks.

D’Angelo Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards combined for seven shots in the final quarter of that 112-110 victory. Jaylen Nowell took nine.

Perhaps that won’t serve as such a surprise from here on out. Because when the moment matters most, Nowell is at his best. And, late in the game, when physicality heightens, he’s at his most comfortable.

Perhaps that’s why it was Nowell leading the offensive charge against the Knicks. Maybe that’s the reason the third-year scoring guard was the offensive motor that powered Minnesota in the fourth quarter to an early-January victory over the Thunder.

Over the Timberwolves’ past 15 games, Nowell is shooting 53 percent from the field in the fourth quarter.

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“He’s been doing that now for a number of games. Really brings a lot to our team, and he can play on and off the ball, create his own shot, create for others and he’s just playing with a lot of confidence, too,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “Drawing some plays for him at the end, putting the ball in his hands, letting him go to work. It’s fun to watch.”

And it’s proving to be a winning formula. In the early stages of the game against the Knicks, Nowell said he was trying to get everyone else going. When he first enters games, it’s usually as the point guard of the second unit when D’Angelo Russell and Patrick Beverley go to the bench.

But his mentality shifted in the fourth quarter in New York.

“Once it hit that moment where I just felt like it was time to take over, I did,” Nowell said. “I made sure to get to my spots and just put them up. Those shots, thankfully, they went in. It was just a whole mindset change in that fourth quarter. Had to win.”

Nowell noted the Knicks “couldn’t guard” him 1 on 1. When he got the ball at the top of the key, he felt he could attack whichever defender was staring him in the face. So he attacked again, and again, and again.

That’s a confident approach from a 22-year-old who spent much of his first two NBA seasons on the bench. It was suggested that perhaps his recent growth in his role provided Nowell with the confidence to assert himself when called on. He rebutted that notion.

“That’s the thing about me, my confidence never wavers. It’s never wavered,” he said. “I don’t really have doubts about my game. At the end of the day, I was going to go and keep going, no matter what, whether that was my rookie year or now.”

One of Nowell’s most important attacks came with six minutes left in the game, when he went right at Knicks center Mitchell Robinson, who had five fouls. Nowell sees every drive of his ending in a bucket or a foul. So either he was going to score on that play, or Robinson was going to foul out. It was the latter, which sent New York’s starting center to the sidelines and gave Minnesota a size advantage that Towns utilized in the game’s most critical moments.

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Nowell hunts contact when he attacks the rim. Good defenses, he noted, will be physical, so he wants to use an opponent’s contact against him. The 6-foot-4 guard initiates the bump, which creates the space necessary to finish. Finch called that a “learned skill,” adding it’s something Nowell is “very good at.” That approach is why Nowell is one of Minnesota’s best scorers in and around the rim.

When Nowell attacks, he’s looking to score. And if a foul comes with it, that’s a bonus.

“That’s the way I grew up, playing in the parks and playing pickup. I played a lot of pickup when I was younger,” Nowell said. “It was call your own fouls. I was one of those guys that never called fouls. I understood that the type of scorer I wanted to become, the way that guys were going to have to stop me was to foul.

“I’m not looking for that foul. I’m really looking to finish every single time. If I get the call, great. Because when you look for those fouls, it kind of throws off your finishing. I want to make sure to get those and-1s if they are fouls.”

That all the work he has put in over the years has finally led to a meaningful role where he can help the Timberwolves wins games means “everything” to Nowell. Minnesota was ripe with closing options before he emerged. But, when the going gets tough, it appears as though the young reserve might be one of the Wolves’ very best options.

“I’m going to continue to work hard, not only for myself, but for the team, for the coaches,” Nowell said, “so we can continue to stack up more wins.”

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