Anthony Edwards is meeting the moment — it just might not be enough against the champs

MINNEAPOLIS — It’s a rite of passage, an unavoidable reality for all of the greats who come through the Association.

Anthony Edwards recognized a moment was necessary and met it. He didn’t shrink from it, he stared the defending champions in the face and delivered a massive blow, one that would’ve put lesser teams on their collective behinds.

Edwards is the NBA’s newest darling, and rightfully so, earning every bit of praise that has been and will be heaped his way. Edwards was a one-man tour de force in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals. The 22-year-old understood a series could be won Sunday night, even if he didn’t say it aloud.

Edwards showed up, but was met on the other side by a proud champion that seems to have found its mojo and rhythm in the most adverse circumstances. One day, Edwards will be where the Denver Nuggets are today, staring down a charismatic new jack with nothing to lose — and he’ll remember the time he scored 44 in the most efficient manner. He’ll remember not everybody on his side meeting the moment.

Edwards has met his nemesis in the Nuggets that, for now, is standing in his way. The way the Detroit Pistons stood in the way of Michael Jordan, preventing his coronation. The way the Boston Celtics initially stood in LeBron James’ way.

The Nuggets tied the Western Conference semifinal series at two games each by virtue of a 115-107 win Sunday before another wild crowd at Target Center. The series will shift back to Denver on Tuesday where the Timberwolves made a definitive statement a week ago with two wins.

But oh, what difference a week makes.

Edwards has done nothing to dim his star, dropping 40 for the second time this series and averaging 33.2 through four games, adding 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals per game. He attacked the Nuggets at every turn, getting to the basket, absorbing contact in an increasingly physical series, but standing upright, hitting triples and learning more and more the effect he can have in high-stakes basketball.

Edwards wasn’t just good, he was spectacular. He was tight in his movements, tip-toeing through the lane like the late Gregory Hines. If the Nuggets have figured out everyone else in this series, they’ve yet to conjure an answer for this man.

“He came out with a very aggressive mindset and he maintained it throughout the game, irrespective of what his teammates were not doing,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “But there was enough other plays out there to be made that could have complemented him that we didn't make. And, you know, those are the things we got to try to do and those things we have been doing all playoffs.”

Maybe tiring him out is the best chance the Nuggets have of stopping him. Edwards, who spent time like a shutdown cornerback on every Nuggets scorer — even Nikola Jokić in the fourth quarter — was spent early in the final 12.

He signaled for a timeout to gather himself, having played 37 of the first 39 minutes. As he sauntered to the bench, Nuggets reserve Christian Braun hit a 3 to put his team up 13. In the two minutes and 40 seconds Edwards was on the bench, the Timberwolves were outscored by 13 points (Edwards was a plus-5 on the night).

“I gotta figure it out. I'm young,” Edwards said with a smile. “So I guess I can look tired and still be effective out there. But I definitely was a little tired, little gassed. But I’ll be alright.”

He doesn’t have to be the next Michael, or Kobe Bryant, or anyone else in that lineage. In fact, he’s performing as if he’s ahead of the curve — taking the Game 3 loss on the chin, snatching accountability and vowing a better performance in Game 4.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - MAY 12: Anthony Edwards #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves reacts during the fourth quarter against the Denver Nuggets in Game Four of the Western Conference Second Round Playoffs at Target Center on May 12, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
Anthony Edwards scored 44 points on Sunday night, but it wasn't enough. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

What he learned is the margin for error in playing against a championship team in its prime, as in there is no margin for error. You can’t fall asleep on an inbounds pass, or a pocket pass — or the Nuggets will pounce because their concentration is at peak levels.

Edwards’ late first-half turnover led to a Michael Porter Jr. runout dunk with 1.6 seconds left, and then Jamal Murray intercepted an inbounds pass on the other side of halfcourt before tossing in a 50-footer at the buzzer — turning a seven-point Nuggets lead with 20 seconds left to a 15-point spread going into halftime.

“This is a great team. They're not going to beat themselves,” Finch said. “It's inexcusable to have, you know, a segment like that where they have like eight points in seven seconds or something like that, whatever it was to close the quarter."

The Timberwolves are learning there are levels to this, and as Edwards continues to ascend, the onus will be on the front office to surround him with teammates who’ll meet him at the moment — because he looked across at a team that knows itself better than any team left in the playoffs does and saw calm instead of panic.

Jokić, whom Edwards calls “the best player in the world” without hesitation, again put his stamp on the series as the Nuggets picked up some smelling salts on their flight to Minnesota a few days ago.

Jokić punished Rudy Gobert, who was awarded with his fourth Defensive Player of the Year trophy right before tip-off, and whomever the Timberwolves put in front of him all night. He scored 35 with 7 assists and 7 rebounds, so many of those passes finding the capable hands of Aaron Gordon, who hit his first 11 shots on the way to a 27-point, 6-assist, 7-rebound performance.

Gordon has sacrificed and submerged himself into winning, into making himself the perfect running mate for Jokić — the ultimate unselfish player in today’s game. As Gordon was asked about being selfless, Jokić walked into the cramped interview room and Gordon smiled.

“Great transition, you saw big fella step in the room,” Gordon said. “That’s where I learned to be selfless, I learned it from him. The best basketball player in the world, a three-time MVP, and he’s the most selfless, humble dude. If the three-time MVP can do it, I can do it, too.”

Gordon can do more, and in other situations would be tasked with doing more, but he seems happy in his role. Same goes for Murray, who’s increasingly finding his way, and the Nuggets received timely contributions from Justin Holiday and Braun, who combined for 22 off the bench.

Edwards doesn’t yet have that guy who fills a role like Gordon, or that player hasn’t yet evolved into one who’ll accentuate all the things he needs. After all, Edwards is still evolving himself.

Karl-Anthony Towns had the worst game at the worst time, missing his first seven shots on the way to a 5-for-18 night, scoring 13 when he came into the night averaging 20.3 in the series. There was extra weight, not just the stakes, but given that it was Mother’s Day. Towns lost his mother, Jacqueline, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Things weren’t falling today. I take responsibility for that,” Towns said. “I put the work in, so I feel good about the work I put in. It’s unfortunate on Mother’s Day, I have a shooting performance like that. It’s the way the game goes. It’s not a fun game sometimes.”

Who knows if Towns, for all his talents and gifts as a stretch-shooting big, is the right complement to Edwards. Edwards, true to form, isn’t bailing on him.

“I mean he’s a superstar. You get paid to put the ball in the rim,” Edwards said. “I told him don’t you ever stop shooting the ball, I don’t give a damn. In order to win, we need you to score. I’m just happy he was aggressive the entire night. Like that’s a win for us tonight.”

It’s noble of Edwards to offer grace in the moment, but no such sentiments were offered in the waning seconds, as he saw Murray clapping a bit in satisfaction. Undeterred by losing two home games over the weekend, Edwards chirped back.

“I just told his ass, we love that, keep talking that,” Edwards said. “Well, I love it. He ain’t say nothing back, but I’m sure he heard me, they heard me.”

They saw him, they just realized they couldn’t stop him — and maybe in this series, they won’t have to.