Friday, for the first time in months, Karl-Anthony Towns practiced fully. From A to Z, full participation, live action, the works.
It was something both Towns and the Wolves needed, something a glitch in the schedule allowed. Late in the season, coming off a cliffhanging victory over Atlanta, the Wolves had a four-day gap between games. That allowed for a day off, then a practice before a flight to San Francisco for the start of a crucial three-game road swing at Golden State on Sunday.
That road trip: at Golden State, at Sacramento, at Phoenix. When the Wolves (37-37) return home from that trip, with five games left in the regular season, they will have a much clearer feel for where they stand in the Western Conference pecking order. They could be on track for a top-six finish, avoiding a play-in game, or a battle just to stay in the top 10 and make the play-in phase. Entering play Saturday night, nine teams were within 3½ games of each other from fourth to 12th place.
Which only made the practices more important. Towns made his first appearance since Nov. 28 in the Wolves' 125-124 victory over Atlanta on Wednesday.
"We had to cover a lot of concepts with KAT at the 4 defensively that we haven't had to touch on for a long time," Wolves coach Chris Finch said. "I mean, we did some of the basics the other day. But this was more advanced. We covered some plays we haven't had to cover for a while that involves him. So yeah, it was good."
Getting Towns back for the stretch run is a good thing, obviously. But there are challenges. Finch wants to integrate Towns into what they are doing without sacrificing the offensive roll the team is on; in back-to back victories over New York and Atlanta the Wolves posted an offensive rating of 121.4 and averaged 30.5 assists.
The ball is moving, the Wolves are getting more contributions from more people — particularly Jaden McDaniels, but also Taurean Prince. Naz Reid has, offensively, been very good. Mike Conley has had a big impact on the pick-and-roll game, but he and Towns had not played together before Wednesday.
"One thing is trying to work on KAT's spacing and decision-making when he gets the ball," Finch said. "We can't have him coming in and being too much of a ball-stopper right now. We have a really good rhythm to our offense. The ball has been moving really well. Both he and [Anthony Edwards] come back, even though we need their scoring, we have to maintain that rhythm."
Edwards, who has missed three games because of an ankle injury, appears close to returning. He was held out of practice Friday due to an illness. But at some point he and Towns will be back in the starting lineup.
Finch went with a big lineup to end the Hawks game primarily because he wanted to keep his hottest players on the court, and that included Reid; Finch joked that Kyle Anderson gave him a dirty look about being the only ball-handler on the floor.
That won't always work — it might not against the Warriors, for example — but getting all his pieces back will give Finch more options late in games.
But the first job is getting Towns back up to full speed, with an offense that looks a little different, with a different point guard running it.
Finch said both KAT and Edwards will benefit from being on the floor with a team that has moved the ball so well of late.
"Yes, 100 percent," Finch said. "And also they're going to get the ball early in the offense like they have been doing. I think what they need to do is re-establish their chemistry. They have had a great chemistry at times playing off each other. I feel confident the ball will move and get back to them once they give it up."