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Think NBA refs are dogging the Timberwolves? You might be onto something

Minnesota leads the NBA in fouls and owns the league’s widest per-game free throw disparity.

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Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns reacts to a foul called on him Nov. 20, 2021, against the Memphis Grizzlies at Target Center in Minneapolis. Bruce Kluckhohn / USA Today Sports
USA TODAY Sports

ST. PAUL -- It’s common for NBA fans, players and coaches to gripe about officiating performances from time to time, and Target Center has been the site of a few different chants chastising the referees already this season. But Saturday took it to a new level.

Even national pundits were noting the calls going against the Minnesota Timberwolves in its gutty, double-overtime victory in Philadelphia.

The 76ers shot 39 free-throws — 21 from Joel Embiid alone — to Minnesota’s 16. Karl-Anthony Towns, Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels each fouled out in the contest.

“Well, (Embiid has) got one of the highest foul draw rates in the league. Just looking here he went to the line more than our entire team. He gets a lot of whistles,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said.

How do you maintain your composure during that?

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“I don’t think I was composed,” Finch said. “I was pretty angry about it all.”

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For what it’s worth, three calls went against Minnesota in the NBA’s last two minute report, filed Sunday — including a no-call that should have been whistled on Embiid on Taurean Prince’s game-winning shot in the second overtime — while Minnesota benefitted from two no-calls.

“The refs were trying to figure it out both ways, in my opinion. There were some calls they gave us that could have gone either (way). I was consistently calling the guys to stay locked in,” Prince said. “They’re not going to change a call halfway down the court while we’re playing transition defense. Just stay locked in, stay in the moment. If you don’t get the call, then quickly move on to the next one, because you don’t want one mistake to lead to two.”

Lead the league in fouls

But there has been a general feeling from the Wolves that they’ve received the short end of the officiating stick for much of the season, and some of the numbers bear that out. The Timberwolves have been whistled for 23.1 fouls per game, most in the NBA. Their opponents are shooting 24.5 free-throws a game, most in the NBA.

That can be a product of Minnesota’s defense. The Timberwolves foul a lot. Finch has acknowledged as much. Minnesota is hyper aggressive. It’s part of the reason the Wolves are forcing their opponents into 18 turnovers a game, also an NBA high.

There is some form of trade-off there. Should it be to the extent that the Wolves are called for two more fouls a game than the next most-whistled team?

Timberwolves games are just officiated with a heavy whistle, too. The Wolves draw 19.9 fouls per game, seventh-most in the NBA, but it hasn’t translated to trips to the charity stripe. Minnesota is 25th in the NBA in free-throw attempts (19 a game). The differential of taking 19 free-throws and allowing 24.5 is the widest disparity in the NBA.

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Towns and Anthony Edwards have had trouble drawing whistles when they attack the rack. They likely could do a better job being strong and initiating contact. D’Angelo Russell averages more free-throw attempts per game (3.4) than Edwards (3.2), despite not attacking the rim with nearly the same frequency. Russell understands the nuanced ways in which a player can draw calls.

Minnesota attempts the most 3-pointers per game in the NBA, which wouldn’t seem conducive for free-throws, but it’s also fourth in the League in shot attempts taken in the restricted area (27.9). Each of the three teams above the Wolves in that category rank in the top 10 in free-throw attempts per game.

That’s not to say Minnesota is fighting an uphill officiating battle on a nightly basis, but at some point the expectation would be for those numbers to level out.

“We’ll earn our respect one day,” Towns said.

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Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch speaks with referee Gediminas Petraitis on Nov. 20, 2021, during the game with the Memphis Grizzlies at Target Center in Minneapolis. Bruce Kluckhohn / USA Today Sports
USA TODAY Sports

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Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch speaks with referee Gediminas Petraitis on Nov. 20, 2021, during the game with the Memphis Grizzlies at Target Center in Minneapolis. Bruce Kluckhohn / USA Today Sports
USA TODAY Sports

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