D’Angelo Russell gives Wolves (and NBA) something to think about as trade deadline nears

MINNEAPOLIS — D’Angelo Russell had just rescued the Timberwolves from what would have been a damaging loss to the struggling Toronto Raptors, his bombardment of 3-pointers serving as the blaring alarm on the clock radio for a team that couldn’t seem to wake up on the second night of a back-t0-back.

As he described the tingle that courses through his body when that left-handed rainbow is arcing down to the pot of gold in the bottom of the basket, he inadvertently captured why his name is such an interesting one as the NBA trade deadline approaches. Few players in the league seem to have such variance on their impact as Russell, who can drain a team with casual turnovers and lackadaisical defense or catapult it with clutch 3-pointers and pinpoint passes.

“When I’m making 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 can be cold and be real cold. I know how the basketball gods are kind of up and down. You just got to take advantage of it when it’s working.”

He was both on Thursday night. Russell scored nine points, missed five of his six 3s and had two turnovers in the first three quarters. Desperate for stops and execution on offense, Russell opened the fourth with a turnover, and the Raptors quickly pushed an eight-point lead to 14 with 10 minutes to go.

The Wolves were dead. All season long they have been a team that has almost never shown the intestinal fortitude to rally from fourth-quarter deficits, and they had a built-in excuse for this one, having landed back home at 4 am Thursday after letting a winnable game slip away in Denver the night before. Then the boom came.

Russell scored on a driving layup to get going, then hit a pair of 3s to make the score 122-113. When the third one fell from the left wing, Target Center erupted, and so did the Wolves defense.

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

Then Jaden McDaniels, Anthony Edwards and the Wolves buckled down, fueled by the roaring crowd and D-Lo’s surge. Minnesota held the Raptors to 17 points in the fourth quarter, only four in the final 7:34, to manufacture a comeback win that made the blown lead in Denver on Wednesday sting just a little bit less.

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

It was enough to prompt veteran Kyle Anderson to conjure images of Will Smith hollering at Martin Lawrence in “Bad Boys II.”

“’From now on, that’s how you shoot!’” Anderson said, mimicking the famous line with a wide smile. “I’d say when he’s knocking down shots like that, that’s the Lo we know and the Lo we love.”

In 22 games since Dec. 1, Russell is shooting 49.8 percent from the field, 42.0 percent from 3 and 93.1 percent on free throws, the hallowed 50/40/90 club. It has been exactly what the Wolves needed, especially after Karl-Anthony Towns went down with a calf strain at the end of November.

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

Russell has settled into an offensive role that is more off the ball, trying to give more opportunities to Edwards to run the show. The result has been one of those shooting runs that Russell has become known for in eight seasons in the league, with the Wolves trying to ride the wave as long as it lasts. For a team that has been short on shooting and needs to scratch and claw its way back into the playoff conversation, Russell’s reliability from the perimeter has been important.

Since acquiring him in a trade with Golden State in 2020, they have seen the highs and the lows. When he catches fire, as he did on Thursday, as he did in Philadelphia last season, as he did in the Play-In game in April, it can be breathtaking to watch. The pull-up 3s in transition, the way he can put a defender on his hip in the pick-and-roll and get to the elbow jumper and the soft touch make him a weapon when he finds that groove.

“It gives us all confidence in knowing that they’re probably going to end up doubling him,” said McDaniels, who had 18 points and seven rebounds. “All the attention goes to him, and it allows us to play freely knowing we can get it back to him and he’s going to knock the shot down.”

Not only did Russell’s shot making give the offense a boost, but it seemed to activate the defense as well. Once the game was in reach, Edwards sunk his teeth into the Raptors. He guarded Pascal Siakam and held him to two points on 1-for-4 shooting with two turnovers in the fourth quarter. Anderson said, at one point in the fourth with Edwards appearing to be tired, he volunteered to take Siakam, who is having an All-Star season for the Raptors. Edwards shook him off, wanting to finish the fight.

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

McDaniels already is. With Edwards handling more of the on-ball duties against Toronto, he was free to roam. He hunted blocks, gobbled up rebounds and used his long arms to deter the smaller Raptors at the rim. He also made 4 of 7 3s and is shooting 40.4 percent from deep this season on 3.1 attempts per game but said he takes more pride in what he’s doing on defense.

“I’ll probably just rather lock someone up,” McDaniels said. “I know I’m going to make shots throughout the game, but stopping someone else from scoring when that’s what they like to do, I like messing peoples’ night up.”

For as great as Russell was in the fourth quarter Thursday, the Wolves have also seen him when he doesn’t have it going. In the first three quarters, he was 1-for-6 from 3 with two turnovers and four assists in 22 minutes. The previous night in Denver, Russell had a bad turnover and shot a corner 3 off the side of the backboard in the closing 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, primarily because of his lack of effort on defense.

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

Russell is in the final season of his contract, putting the Wolves in a financial bind one way or another. He is making $31 million this season. If he leaves in free agency this summer, the Wolves cannot spend the same amount of money to replace him because they will still be over the salary cap. They will only really have the midlevel exception of around $10 million per season to use in free agency.

Russell may not be a $30 million player right now, but the talent at his fingertips remains 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 add-on last February. But there are few indications that is a realistic possibility at this point.

“You either take advantage of me and my ability, or f— up the opportunity with me,” Russell told Yahoo Sports in December. “It’s as simple as that.”

So the Wolves could consider trading him to preserve his salary slot and, perhaps, find a more consistent player, if not one who is capable of taking over a game the way Russell did against the Raptors. Miami’s Kyle Lowry and Utah’s Mike Conley are among the names being mentioned in the always-thirsty NBA rumor mill, but no deal appears close to being completed.

While the market does not appear to be particularly hot for Russell, a night like Thursday could entice a playoff team to take a chance on a player with legitimate crunchtime credentials. Other teams could look to move players with multiple years on their deals and take on his expiring contract as a means of creating cap space this summer.

Whatever the Timberwolves do, it will be with an eye toward competing this season. Utah has their first-round pick, and three more after it through 2029 from the Gobert trade, so there is no incentive to tank. They are 23-24, good for seventh in the muddled Western Conference. For all of the struggles and frustration of the first half of the season, they are 1 1/2 games out of the fifth seed, all while missing their franchise player for going on two months.

“The spirit in the locker room is great,” Finch said. “Doesn’t matter who’s in and out of our lineup right now, guys are playing hard and giving ourselves a chance to win, and that’s all we can ask for. We’ve had a few stinkers in there, but that’s normal. And nights like this make up for those, for sure.”

Maybe they think they are a floor general away from getting on a run and surging up the conference ladder. Maybe they think the downturns in Russell’s game — the turnovers, the defense, the shooting slumps — make it impossible to rely on him going forward, therefore prompting them to make a move.

Or maybe they look at what he did Thursday night, look at the landscape of the trade market and determine that there isn’t an available player out there capable of the high notes Russell can belt out when he’s locked in. The talent is tantalizing. The mistakes are maddening.

The Feb. 9 trade deadline is right around the corner.


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(Photo of D’Angelo Russell: Matt Krohn / USA Today)

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