Patrick Reusse
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Flip Saunders was fired as the Timberwolves coach in February 2005. That was something of a surprise, since it came following what remains the only actual playoff run in franchise history, to the 2004 Western Conference finals.

Owner Glen Taylor has stated regret for allowing that firing, and he brought back Saunders as the team president in 2013. Flip would make himself the coach for the 2014-15 season with one goal in mind: to get as many pingpong balls as possible for the 2015 lottery.

That was a tank job that worked — a 16-66 record that was the worst in the NBA and a victory in the lottery.

Karl-Anthony Towns, the 7-foot freshman from Kentucky, was Saunders' selection on June 25. The next day, the Timberwolves introduced Towns and their other first-rounder, Apple Valley's Tyus Jones (Duke), in an atrium located next to the team's new practice facility.

There were Wolves fans crowded at the railings on a floor above as the news conference took place. And the 19-year-old Towns was so impressive that even a curmudgeon offered this review for the Star Tribune:

"I've been at this for a while. I saw Mike Modano, and Kevin Garnett, and Joe Mauer introduced as teenagers coming to teams here. I've seen a hundred of these new-draft choice news conferences.

"The best first impression I've seen made came from Towns on Friday, a 19-year-old who is humorous, smart and personable. Also, intangibles, character, makeup …"

The long-suffering Wolves loyalists seemed to agree. When the team held an open scrimmage a couple of weeks later that was free to the public, there were people stretched out for a few blocks waiting to get in to see KAT. The Wolves claimed a crowd of 15,200 for a minigame scrimmage.

Tragically, Flip Saunders never got a chance to see Towns play a true game for the Wolves. He was taking on Hodgkin's lymphoma and seemed to be winning; then, it took a terrible turn and Flip died on Oct. 25, 2015, at 60.

It is now nine years since Saunders made the Towns choice and the Wolves are finally enjoying a season comparable to the excellence of 2003-04.

On Friday night, Towns returned after missing 18 games with a torn meniscus in his left knee.

And who could have guessed a couple of years ago that his return was not as much a lifesaver as an excellent bonus for these Wolves as they enter the playoffs in the deepest-ever 10-team field in the Western Conference?

It was good to get KAT back to give him some time before the playoffs start next weekend, and not so much that this would be an upgrade over having Naz Reid in the starting lineup.

Coach Chris Finch said a couple of hours before Friday's tipoff that he wasn't sure how KAT would be used. Turned out, Towns started vs. Atlanta at power forward, and Reid was returned to a sixth-man role.

The Wolves have been basically brutal at the start of most games lately, and there was another cause for concern Friday:

Scott Foster was the lead official, and it was a month ago that Rudy Gobert made a money sign to him with his index fingers and thumbs.

This resulted first in a technical, then in a $100,000 fine from the NBA for Gobert, and it's anyone's guess as to what it did to Foster's opinion of the Wolves.

There was much chaos with the Wolves offense in the first half, and things functioned much better when Reid was on the floor, be it with either Gobert or Towns.

Reid had 15 and the Wolves led 56-47 at halftime. The lead grew to 76-59 halfway through the third quarter, and then incredibly — with KAT or without — the home team went absolutely comatose and allowed Atlanta to tie it at 80-all after the third, and to take the lead in the fourth.

The Wolves finally came away with a 109-106 victory that was ugly as sin, but one that kept them in contention for a No. 1 seed in the West after Denver was upset by last-place San Antonio.

Which means: Welcome back, KAT — not so much putting a team on your shoulders as was anticipated way back when, but rather because a Wolves club that has real playoff potential for the first time in 20 years needs the depth.