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    Why this Timberwolves win without Mike Conley could, and should, be defining

    Mike Conley is one of the most respected players in the NBA, a pro’s pro. What he can’t be, though, is a human crutch. He can no longer be the one guy who keeps these Timberwolves from treating a game like kindergarten recess.

    If the Wolves proved anything Monday night in Oklahoma City, it’s that they know how to play the right way, make winning plays, put forth a mature performance without their wise, old point guard guiding them in that direction.

    Without question, the Wolves are demonstrably better with Conley on the floor. They need to stop becoming the Wolves of yesteryear when he’s not. A 107-101 win over the Thunder in a clash of the Western Conference’s top two teams carried the tenor of an inflection point for the Wolves, as much as that distinction can exist inside an 82-game season.

    The Wolves were in a funk when they landed in Oklahoma, coinciding with Conley’s hamstring injury absence. Bad habits had returned. Turnovers were dooming them. Fourth quarters were ugly. Frustration was mounting.

    This question needed an answer: Was this just a typical rough stretch in a long season, or signs of deeper trouble?

    No one game counts more in the standings than any other, but certain games carry extra importance in what they reveal when a team is teetering. The Wolves responded to their moment by playing like the team that stormed through the opening 2½ months of the season.

    Their defensive execution and intensity were magnificent. Their stars trusted teammates to make clutch shots instead of resorting to one-against-the-world hero ball. The head coach’s rotations made sense and created favorable matchups. We didn’t see anyone handling the ball as if it were a hand grenade.

    That it came against an opponent as talented as the Thunder amplified those positives.

    The poise and purpose displayed with the game up for grabs allowed the fan base to exhale and feel good about this squad and this season again.

    The air around the Wolves was beginning to feel heavy. Coach Chris Finch was unusually pointed after one poor outing, calling his team’s performance “absolute disgusting and immature.”

    Lamenting the team’s maturity was the most maddening part of the past two weeks. This group should be well beyond that phase. The Wolves are not a young team anymore. They were constructed with the intent of being a contender now.

    The Wolves demonstrated time and again last season they were not a serious team. They have demonstrated time and again this season that they should be viewed as a more mature, grown-up version. Conley’s presence solidifies that maturity, but the Wolves are too talented to allow everything to crumble if he’s on the bench in street clothes.

    The performance Monday restored some of that faith and optimism established in November and December.

    The signature moment of the win was Anthony Edwards’ driving, soaring dunk in the closing minutes that included Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander grabbing his arm on what should have been a foul.

    Ant’s dunk went viral, but his decision-making preceding that play was equally impactful. He played under control and passed to open teammates rather than force up wild shots. That was winning basketball.

    Finch adjusted his rotations after head-scratching lineups that backfired spectacularly in the loss to San Antonio. His combinations against Oklahoma City provided a winning edge. Role players responded with outstanding nights.

    The Wolves needed that performance like a traveler lost in the desert needs a Kool-Aid stand.

    Now: build on it. This win should jolt players back to playing the right way.

    Every loss or bad performance should not become a referendum on the team’s maturity level. The Wolves spent the first half of the season trying to instill the belief that they are different. Their fans desperately want to believe that too.

    One win against a good team in January shouldn’t define a season. The lessons learned within that win, though, can prove defining if carried forth.

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