Jaden McDaniels claims an All-Defense spot

The corner 3-pointer had to feel good for Jaden McDaniels, especially after some tough critical-time misses earlier this season. He spent all summer perfecting this jumper, refining the arc on the shot until it was 47 degrees each time. Not 46, not 48. Forty-seven degrees.

As clean as this shot looks, the one that splashed to give the Timberwolves a 102-95 lead over the LA Clippers with 3:05 left on Tuesday night, it paled in comparison to a play he made on the other end two minutes later, it won’t appear on the highlight reels. It didn’t earn him a steal or a blocked shot on the stat sheet. But it was still the play that earned the desperate Timberwolves a skid win.

Hanging on to a five-point lead and with the Ghost of Blown Leads Past lurking on their shoulders, Anthony Edwards missed a pull-up over Kawhi Leonard to return the ball to the Clippers with 1:20 to go. Recently signed erratic keeper Russell Westbrook had the ball on the right wing and was looking to get it to Paul George, who had scored five straight points to make the game interesting.

But McDaniels harassed George, sticking to George’s shadow like Glue Girl’s handprint on the Target Center field, and preventing Westbrook from giving him the ball. With that option eliminated, Westbrook had to take it himself, which is exactly what Wolves wanted. It resulted in an 11-foot fade that didn’t stand a chance, and Kyle Anderson’s floater on the other end essentially froze the win and ended a miserable three-game losing streak.

Even though McDaniels’ expression never changes, it’s no secret which game brought him the most joy. After a win over the Nuggets in January, I asked him what he liked more, hitting a big shot or locking someone up defensively.

“I’ll probably lock someone up instead,” he said. “I know I’m going to take shots throughout the game, but preventing someone else from scoring when that’s what they like to do, I like to ruin people’s nights. I’m just trying to do this.

The game characterized all night for the Timberwolves. It was tenacious and gritty, requiring maximum effort to achieve a result few saw happen overnight. Wolves had looked lethargic and listless in back-to-back losses to Washington and Charlotte at home, then surrendered another lead in a loss to severely shorthanded Golden State on Sunday.

Tuesday night they were rough and intense, if not precise. They turned the ball over 19 times, made just nine 3s and were outplayed again in the fourth quarter. But this time, against a jam-packed Clippers team that has a knack for disappointing, the Timberwolves (32-32) dug in, rebounded from a 12-point first-quarter deficit and picked up a victory that propelled them in eighth place in the West. Conference, one game behind the fifth seed.

“We knew we had to keep and we came up with our decision,” Edwards, who scored 18 points on 18 shots but provided terrific defense on the ball, said in a postgame interview with TNT. “It’s our type of game.”

The TNT show was understandably in love with Edwards, the 21-year-old All-Star tasked with holding down the fort until Towns returned. He certainly had his moments against the Clippers, including stripping Leonard on a drive to the basket and then converting into a beautiful reverse layup for an eight-point lead midway through the fourth.

But it was a night that belonged to McDaniels. He did it all on national television, going 8 for 12 from the field and leading Wolves with 20 points, six rebounds one steal and a block from Leonard at the rim. When he wasn’t guarding George, he was in Leonard’s gridiron, forcing a player who was hot on an unusually ineffective night. Leonard scored 23 points on 7-for-19 shooting with three turnovers.

For a player who does everything so quietly, playing so hard on TNT in a high-stakes game is the kind of thing that can put him on the All-Defense card. His teammates and coaches lobbied for him throughout the season, but the Timberwolves’ uneven play may have made it harder for him to garner the votes he needs.

Taking down the Clippers member by member with the rest of the league watching could certainly help.

“I think we have the best perimeter defender in the NBA,” veteran Austin Rivers said two weeks ago. “His ability to protect not only fast guards but also big guards, I don’t think there’s anyone who can do that better than him.”

Leonard became the latest star McDaniels held in check, and that was no small feat. Leonard has averaged 28.7 points and shot 49.5 percent from 3 in the previous 19 games. Wolves held him to 3 shots for 7 and eight points in the second half.

“There aren’t a lot of people in the NBA who are actually real two-way players. Most guys are one-way players who can sometimes do the other way. … I think Jaden tries to also end up in attack,” Rivers said. “I feel like when he plays and when he scores, I think we’re playing better, so we want him to continue to be aggressive.”

In a team that has often lacked the kind of lit leadership it had last season, McDaniels’ success seemed to embolden some of his teammates. Rudy Gobert rocked a terrible first quarter to rack up 10 points and four rebounds in the second quarter, capitalizing after Naz Reid went to work to close the deficit.

Gobert finished with 16 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, Reid had 12 points and eight boards, Anderson had 12 points and 10 rebounds and Nickeil Alexander-Walker appeared to supplant Rivers in the rotation and provided five points, two assists and a solid defense in 17 minutes. Mike Conley and Jordan McLaughlin, the two struggling point guards, both had great moments.

There was nothing flashy about this Wolves performance. It was a jagged game at times, prone to nasty turnovers, missed shots and poor decisions. But for a team that has always failed to embody the determination and ingenuity of last year’s team, it was a refreshing display of spine.

Now the question is, will they ever be able to call on that kind of effort again? The road trip continues Friday with a game against the Lakers, who won’t have LeBron James but will have three familiar faces looking to prove a point. Next is a game against Sacramento on Saturday before heading home to face Philadelphia and Brooklyn next week.

They may be hot on the heels of fifth-seeded Golden State and the sixth-seeded Clippers as they try to climb out of the Play-In rankings. But they’re also just a game and a half ahead of Portland for the 11th seed, which would rule them out of playoff action.

It’s going to be a fight until the end. More effort like the one they put in on Tuesday night will at least give them a fighting chance.

(Top photo: Harry How/Getty Images)

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