Jaden McDaniels bets on a place in all defense

The 3-pointer from the corner had to feel good for Jaden McDaniels, especially after a couple of tough misses in crunch time earlier this season. He spent all summer perfecting that jumper, perfecting the arc of the shot until it was 47 degrees every time. Not 46, not 48. Forty-seven degrees.

As clean as that shot looked, the one that splashed through to give the Timberwolves a 102-95 lead over the LA Clippers with 3:05 left Tuesday night, it paled in comparison to a game he played at the other end two minutes. later it will not appear on the highlight reels. It didn’t put him on the stat sheet with a steal or a blocked shot. But it was still the play that gave the desperate Timberwolves a skid-stopping victory.

Clinging to a five-point lead and with the Ghost of Blown Leads Past looming over their shoulders, Anthony Edwards missed a pull-up jumper over Kawhi Leonard to give the ball back to the Clippers with 1:20 left. Russell Westbrook, the erratic, recently signed guard, had the ball on the right wing and looked to get it to Paul George, who had scored five straight points to make the game interesting.

But McDaniels stalked George, epoxied himself to George’s shadow like Glue Girl’s handprint on the Target Center court, and made it impossible for Westbrook to get him the ball. With that option eliminated, Westbrook had to take it himself, which is exactly what the Wolves wanted. It resulted in a tap-away from 11 feet that had no chance, and Kyle Anderson’s floater at the other end essentially iced the win and snapped a miserable three-game losing streak.

Although McDaniel’s expression never changes, it’s no secret which game brought him more joy. After a win over the Nuggets in January, I asked him what he liked more, hitting a big shot or locking someone up on the defensive end.

“I’d rather lock someone up,” he said. “I know I’m going to make shots throughout the game, but to stop someone else from scoring when that’s what they like to do, I like to mess up people’s night. Just trying to do it.”

The play marked the entire night for the Timberwolves. It was tenacious and ferocious, requiring maximum effort to squeeze out a result that few saw heading into the night. The Wolves had looked listless and listless in back-to-back losses to Washington and Charlotte at home, then gave away another lead in a loss to severely shorthanded Golden State on Sunday.

On Tuesday night, they were rough and intense, if not precise. They turned the ball over 19 times, made just nine 3s and were once again outplayed in the fourth quarter. But this time, against a loaded Clippers team that has a knack for overwhelming, the Timberwolves (32-32) dug in, rallied from a 12-point first quarter deficit and earned a win that moved them into eighth place in the Western . Conference, just one game out of the fifth seed.

“We knew we had to guard and we came in with a determined mind,” Edwards, who scored 18 points on 18 shots but provided terrific on-ball defense, said in an interview with TNT after the game. “This is our kind of game.”

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

But this was a night that belonged to McDaniels. He did it all on national television, going 8-for-12 from the field and leading the Wolves with 20 points, six rebounds, a steal and a block with Leonard at the rim. When he wasn’t guarding George, he was right up in Leonard’s grill, forcing a player who has been red-hot into 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 that high on TNT in a high-stakes game is the kind of thing that could put him on the All-Defense map. His teammates and coaches have lobbied for him all season, but the Timberwolves’ uneven play may have made it harder for him to garner the votes he needs.

Picking the Clippers apart limb from limb while the rest of the league watches could certainly help.

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

Leonard became the latest star that McDaniels kept in check, and this was no small order. Leonard averaged 28.7 points and shot a whopping 49.5 percent from 3 over the previous 19 games. The Wolves held him to 3-for-7 shooting and eight points in the second half.

“There’s not a lot of people in the NBA that are actually true two-way players. Most guys are one-way players who can do the other thing at times. … I think Jaden is also trying to find himself in the offense,” Rivers said. “I feel like when he plays and when he scores I think we play better so we want him to continue to be aggressive.”

On a team that has often lacked the kind of fire-igniting leadership it had last season, McDaniel’s success seemed to encourage some of his teammates. Rudy Gobert shook off a terrible first shift to put up 10 points and four rebounds in the second quarter, capitalizing after Naz Reid went to work to chip away at 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 looked to replace Rivers in the rotation, providing five points, two assists and strong defense for 17 minutes. Mike Conley and Jordan McLaughlin, the two point guards who have struggled, both had big moments.

There was nothing flashy about this Wolves performance. It was a lopsided game at times, prone to ugly stretches of turnovers, missed shots and bad decisions. But for a team that has consistently failed to embody the determination and ingenuity of last year’s team, this was a refreshing show of backbone.

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

They could be right on the heels of No. 5 seed Golden State and the sixth-seeded Clippers as they try to climb out of the Play-In seedings. But they’re also just 1 1/2 games up on Portland for the 11th seed, which would leave them out of any postseason.

It’s going to be a fight to the finish. More efforts like the one they gave on Tuesday night will at least give them a chance.

(Top photo: Harry How/Getty Images)

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