D’Angelo Russell is giving the Wolves (and the NBA) something to think about as the trade deadline approaches

MINNEAPOLIS — D’Angelo Russell just saved the Timberwolves from what could have been a devastating loss to the struggling Toronto Raptors, his 3-pointer pounding a stark warning on the clock radio for a team that can’t seem to wake up until the second night from noon to noon.

As he described the tingling that goes through his body when left-handed Rainbow bows to a pot of gold at the bottom of the basket, he inadvertently discovered why his name was so interesting as the NBA trade deadline approached. Few players in the league seem to have such a disparity in their impact as Russell, who can drain a team with turnovers and poor defense or throw in three-point barrels and pinpoint passes.

“When I shoot shots, I mean, I’ve been doing it for a little while now; I can get real hot and stay hot,” he said after the 128-126 win. I know how the basketball gods are kind of up and down. You just have to take advantage of it when it works.”

It was both Thursday night. Russell scored nine points, missed five of his three doubles, and made two turnovers in the first three quarters. Desperate to stop and execute on offense, Russell opened the fourth with a turnover, and the Raptors quickly pushed their eight-point lead to 14 with 10 minutes left in the game.

The wolves are dead. All season, they were a team that never showed the intestinal fortitude to rush off a fourth-quarter deficit, and they had basically an excuse for this, having come home at 4 a.m. Thursday after leaving a winnable game. away in Denver the night before. Then came the boom.

Russell scored on a layup on the drive to start, then hit a pair of 3s to make it 122-113. As the third went down from the left wing, Target Center erupted, and so did the Wolves defense.

The Timberwolves, who entered the game ranked 29th in 3-point percentage (32.9) and 28th in overall field goal percentage, allowed the Raptors to shoot 59 percent from the field and 57 percent (12-for-21) from depth in the first. Three-quarters.

Then Jaden McDaniels, Anthony Edwards and the Wolves cowered, spurred on by the raging crowd and D-Lo’s rush. Minnesota raised the Raptors’ lead to 17 points in the fourth quarter, and just four points with 7:34 to go, to set up a winning comeback that put Denver’s lead on Wednesday just below.

Russell’s fourth triple made the score 124-119, and Edwards added a huge step of his own to tie it up before Russell put his rip on Fred VanVleet on the line with 9.9 seconds to play. They both sank, and OG Anunoby missed out on a potential win 3 at the buzzer. When it was over, Russell scored 16 of his 25 points in the fourth, hitting all four of his three points, to stun the Raptors.

It was enough to prompt veteran Kyle Anderson to conjure up images of Will Smith yelling at Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys 2.

“From now on, this is how you shoot!” Anderson said, imitating the famous line with a wide grin. “I like to say when he hits shots like that, this is the Lo we know and the Lo we love.”

In 22 games since Dec. 1, Russell shoots 49.8 percent from the field, 42.0 percent from 3 and 93.1 percent on free throws, a club hallowed 50/40/90 ratio. It was exactly what the Wolves needed, especially after Carl Anthony Towns fell with a strain on his calf at the end of November.

So the question becomes: Do the Timberwolves really want to trade him?

Russell settled into an attacking role off the ball, trying to give Edwards more opportunities to run the show. The result was one of those runs Russell is famous for in eight seasons in the league, with Wolves trying to ride the wave as long as it lasted. For a team that was short on shooting and needed to itch and get back into the playoff conversation, Russell’s reliability from the perimeter was important.

Since his acquisition in a trade deal with Golden State in 2020, they have seen their highs and their lows. When he’s on fire, as he did on Thursday, as he did in Philadelphia last season, as he did at the Play-In game in April, it can be exhilarating to watch. The pulling 3s are in transition, the way he can put the cannon on his hip for a pick-and-roll and reach for the elbow jumper and soft touch make him a weapon when he finds that groove.

“It gives us confidence knowing they’re likely to end up doubling it,” said McDaniels, who had 18 points and seven rebounds. “All the attention is on him, and he lets us play freely knowing we can bring it back to him and he’ll smash the ball.”

Not only did Russell’s shot give the attack a boost, but it seemed to energize the defense as well. Once the game was in hand, Edwards sank his teeth into the Raptors. He guarded Pascal Siakam and brought his score to 2 points on 1-for-4 shooting with two turnovers in the fourth quarter. At one point in the fourth with Edwards looking tired, Anderson said, he volunteered to take Siakam, who is spending an all-star season with the Raptors. Edwards shook him, wanting to end the fight.

“He needs to do that because he can be a defensive weapon for us,” said coach Chris Finch.

McDaniels indeed. With Edwards handling more duties on the ball against Toronto, he was free to roam. It catches blocks, gobbles up rebounds and uses its long arms to deter smaller birds of prey at the edge. He’s also hit 4 of 7 3s and shoots 40.4 percent from depth this season on 3.1 attempts per game but said he takes more pride in what he does on defense.

“I’d probably lock someone up,” McDaniels said. “I know I’m going to be taking shots all game, but to stop someone else from scoring when that’s what they like to do, I love messing around people’s night.”

As Russell had a great fourth quarter on Thursday, the Wolves also saw him when he wasn’t doing it. In the first three quarters, he was 1-for-6 in 3 with two turnovers and four tackles in 22 minutes. The night before in Denver, Russell was abysmal and hit a layup 3 from the side of the backboard in the final minutes as the Wolves let a five-point lead slip away. He was benched at the end of Game 6 of the playoff series against Memphis because he was ineffective, and Finch has closed games without him this season as well, mainly due to his lack of defensive effort.

Russell also struggled to build chemistry with Rudy Gobert on the pick-and-roll, leading fans to wonder if a more traditional base would better fit the Timberwolves going forward.

Russell is in the final season of his contract, one way or another putting Wolves in a financial bin. He is earning $31 million this season. If he leaves free agency this summer, the Wolves can’t spend the same amount of money to replace him because they’ll still be over the salary cap. They would really have a mid-level exception of about $10 million a season to use in free agency.

Russell may not be a $30 million player right now, but the talent at his fingertips is still undeniable. The Wolves could still try to reach some sort of contract extension with him, just as they did in signing Patrick Beverley to a one-year extra contract last February. But there are few indications of a realistic possibility at this point.

“You either take advantage of me and my abilities, or you take advantage of me,” Russell told Yahoo Sports in December. “It’s that easy.”

So the Wolves could consider his initiative to keep his salary and perhaps find a more consistent player, if not one capable of taking over the game the way Russell did against the Raptors. Miami’s Kyle Lowery and Utah’s Mike Connelly are among the names mentioned in the ever-thirsty NBA rumor mill, but neither deal seems anywhere near complete.

Although the market doesn’t look particularly hot for Russell, a night like Thursday could tempt a playoff team to take a chance on a player with legitimate credentials in times of crisis. Other teams could look to transfer players who are several years out of their deals and take on an expiring contract as a way to create a lot of space this summer.

Whatever the Timberwolves do, they’re looking to be competitive this season. Utah has a first-round pick, and three more after that through 2029 from the Gobert trade, so there’s no incentive to tank. They range in age from 23 to 24, and are seventh in the confused Western Conference. Despite all the struggles and frustration in the first half of the season, they are 1 1/2 games away from the fifth seed, all while losing their franchise player due to a two-month hiatus.

“The spirit in the locker room is great,” said Finch. “It doesn’t matter who’s in and out of the lineup at the moment, the guys play hard and give ourselves a chance to win, that’s all we could ask for. We had a few fouls in there, but that’s normal. And nights like this make up for those, for sure.”

Maybe they think they are a general a floor away from running up and down the conference stairs. Perhaps they think that the downturns in Russell’s game — turnovers, defense and shot touchdowns — make it impossible to count on him going forward, prompting them to make a move.

Or maybe they look at what he did on Thursday night, look at the mall scene and decide there isn’t a player available out there capable of the high notes Russell can tap into when he’s locked up. The talent is bewildering. The errors are insane.

The trading deadline of February 9th is just around the corner.


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(Photo by D’Angelo Russell: Matt Crone/USA Today)

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