WASHINGTON — The steam was still coming out of Minnesota Timberwolves coach Chris Finch’s ears when he took his seat for the postgame news conference following Monday’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets at home. He had warned his team at halftime of that game that if they did not lock in, particularly on defense, they risked losing a home game to a nine-win team while they let other things distract them.
When the Wolves proved him right, Finch let them have it in a blistering public assessment that has been extraordinarily rare for a coach who has built a reputation for his even-keeled demeanor in his time at the helm in Minnesota.
The words “disgusting” and “immature” following a game in which Karl-Anthony Towns scored a franchise-record 62 points catapulted Finch’s remarks from the local level to national, putting the Timberwolves in the larger NBA discourse for two days by the time Finch sat down on Wednesday for his pregame remarks in Washington.
Fans often want to hear coaches let players have it after a bad loss. They want to see those directly involved in the game express the same emotions and frustration that they feel in the heat of the moment. Coaches, Finch among them, and players understand that not getting too high after wins or too low after losses is an essential part of achieving the consistency needed to survive the grind of the season.
But there are times throughout a season that require a different approach. Finch had felt over the last couple of weeks that the Wolves’ play had been slipping from the standard they set earlier in the season while climbing to be the No. 1-seeded in the Western Conference.
When the Wolves allowed the Hornets to shoot 57 percent from the field and outscore them 36-18 in the fourth quarter while Minnesota seemed to prioritize getting Towns as many points as possible over winning the game, Finch wanted to make sure his displeasure resonated loudly with the team.
Asked on Wednesday about the decision to be as candid as he was, Finch acknowledged that it was something he has rarely done.
“I always try to give you an honest assessment of where we are,” Finch said. “I never single out guys or throw players under the bus. It’s unacceptable for me in my mind to do that. But it doesn’t mean that we’re going to run from or flower up some sort of performance that was just not up to the standard that we have. To me, I felt that was the case.”
Much of Finch’s message on Monday night was intended to be directed at the team as a whole and not just at Towns, which is what some in the national media interpreted. When asked a follow-up question, he said he did think Towns was hunting shots in the fourth quarter, when he went 2 of 10 after scoring 58 through the first three quarters.
But Finch also was upset with Anthony Edwards for assist-hunting and almost completely shutting off his openness to score while he tried to get Towns to catch Joel Embiid, who scored 70 points that night. Finch also was most disgusted with the team’s defense, the No. 1-ranked unit in the league that gave up an 18-point lead to a team ranked 27th in offensive efficiency.
Finch said the most important part of his decision to be so blunt was that he had already delivered the same message to the players, face-to-face.
“I’ve said the same thing to players so saying it to the media wasn’t, in my mind, any more egregious or damaging to their mindset than it was saying it directly to them,” Finch said.
He did have one regret about the moment. Speaking to The Athletic on Wednesday afternoon before the Wolves beat the Wizards 118-107, Finch said that he got caught up in the emotion of the loss and neglected to acknowledge the historic night from Towns, who hit his first eight 3s of the game and scored 44 points in the first half.
Finch said he wished he would have taken time to praise KAT’s remarkable shooting night and didn’t want anyone to think the coach was singling out Towns in his criticism of the team’s approach. Finch also addressed the issue in front of the team at the shootaround on Wednesday morning.
And the players seemed to take Finch’s comments in stride.
“It’s just a fact,” Naz Reid said with a shrug. “He can’t say that if we don’t play how we play. It’s a fact. It’s something we have to be better at and can’t allow.”
Towns said after the loss to Charlotte that there was no argument with the substance of Finch’s ire.
“I’ll tell you one thing. He ain’t lying because he said the same thing to us,” Towns said. “So what you’re hearing by him in the postgame is what we’re hearing in the locker room. The words he picked (Monday) are true.
“I think at the end of the game with everything going and everything, you know, we just have to find a way to be mature and get the job done and something we’ve done well all year. It’s just unfortunate it bit us tonight and cost us a chance to come out of here with a win.”
Rudy Gobert said he understood why Finch was so upset. Gobert said he has felt the same kind of slippage defensively over the last few weeks that Finch was referring to. Gobert said losing to the Hornets may have been the wake-up call the Wolves needed to get back to the principles that got them to the top of the West.
“As a coach, I think it’s even more frustrating because they told us all the right things but we didn’t do it on the court,” Gobert said. “You feel powerless when you do your job the right way and guys don’t execute on the floor. And we know it’s coming. We know the things we don’t want to do as a team and we still do them. So I understand his frustration.”
Finch did take some accountability for the loss, saying that he has to “control the end of games better” offensively, especially in games when Mike Conley is not playing. Conley missed his second straight game on Wednesday because of an illness that could keep him out of Thursday’s game in Brooklyn.
The response on Wednesday was far from perfect. The Wolves trailed the seven-win Wizards by two at halftime, allowing Washington to shoot 51 percent from the field while Minnesota shot just 36 percent and was 15 of 33 in the paint. They found their defense in the third quarter, scored 32 points off of 21 Wizards turnovers and got one of the best offensive balance games between Edwards and Towns that they have had all season.
Edwards scored 15 of his 38 points in the fourth quarter, Towns had 27 and six rebounds and Gobert added 19 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks.
“I liked the way that the Ant-Kat combo was going tonight,” Finch said. “Felt like it was in rhythm and they even found each other at times.”
it’s just what Æ does. pic.twitter.com/mU5ju33vuU
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) January 25, 2024
Towns was in good spirits, showing no signs of being bothered by anything Finch said. He was only 2 of 10 from 3-point range, but his aggressiveness going to the basket against a soft Wizards defense made a big difference.
89 points in 2-game span.
second-most ever in franchise history 👏 pic.twitter.com/OMtcqGBu0g
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) January 25, 2024
One of Finch’s strengths in his time as coach in Minnesota has been his relationship with players. Striking the right tone with them, both privately and publicly, is “one of the most important things we do as coaches, figure out how to message, when to message, what to message, read our team.
“You’ve got to coach to your personality, but you’ve got to make sure that you’re also leaving more than enough room for the team and its personality. … You’ve got to keep building them back up during the tough spots.”
(Top photo of Rudy Gobert, Anthony Edwards and Chris Finch: Ronald Cortes / Getty Images)