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International Timberwolves taking club to new heights

MINNEAPOLIS (USA) - Is it a coincidence that the Minnesota Timberwolves are just a couple of wins away from the NBA Western Conference Finals for only the second time in their history?

Is this just a natural maturation process that was bound to happen with some of the finest players in the league, or is there something else at play here? The T-Wolves have always had talent. In 2004, they made it to the Western Conference Finals but lost to the Lakers in six games.

The reality is they have never been able to fully capitalize on the talent in their stable, yet maybe, just maybe, they will this year. Minnesota is looking like a team that can win the title and it's fair to say that international basketball experience has been helping them.

Head coach Chris Finch, 54, cut his teeth in coaching in Europe, following the end of his playing career in Great Britain.

He also held the reins of the GB national team, leading it out of the international wilderness and into the FIBA EuroBasket, taking the Brits from the old Division B to the Final Round in Poland in 2009 and in 2011. He coached them at the London Olympics. too, where he was assisted by Toronto's 2019 NBA-title-winning coach Nick Nurse.

Finch was head coach of GB's 2012 Olympic team and Nick Nurse was one of his assistants

Minnesota have several players that look better, that have improved after competing at the World Cup.

Two of them are Anthony Edwards and Karl Anthony Towns, who ran up and down the floor for USA and Dominican Republic, respectively, in Manila.

Both have had very impressive campaigns in the playoffs. Edwards had 27 points and seven assists on Monday and Towns had 27 points and 12 rebounds as the Timberwolves beat defending champions Denver, 106-80, for a 2-0 lead in their Semi-Final showdown. 

Both have said that the World Cup experience did them a lot of good.

Edwards, named to the All-Star Five in the Philippines, said the tournament helped him prepare for the NBA season.

"... I put in work this summer," he said. "Big shout out to the USA team, it got me ready for this season and I appreciate that."

Edwards averaged 25.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists this season. During the campaign, he was asked about the USA experience.

"I think that changed my perspective about everything, being able to play with your team, playing within the game and not just try to play isolation ball all day, playing within a system. And Finchy (Minnesota coach Chris Finch) does a great job of making sure I stay within the system."

Edwards said the World Cup "changed my perspective about everything, being able to play with your team..."

Towns had an extra bounce in his step in Manila with the Dominican Republic.

"FIBA basketball is amazing," he said at the start of the tournament. "It's a huge honor when you get to represent your country. A lot of NBA players are recognizing just how global the game is."

NBA teams have been impacted greatly by players that have competed internationally. Many are North Americans but a lot have come from Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and South America. The foreigners that have earned NBA contracts over the years.

Some are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, like Germany's Dirk Nowitzki, France's Tony Parker, Canada's Steve Nash, Spain's Pau Gasol, China's Yao Ming and Argentina's Manu Ginobili.

There have been countless other foreigners that have made a huge impact on the league.

Slovenia star Luka Doncic and his Dallas Mavericks are in the Western Conference play-offs, too

Currently, there are league MVP candidates Nikola Jokic (Serbia), Luka Doncic (Slovenia) and Shai Gilgous-Alexander (Canada). Jokic has already won the MVP honor twice, just as Greece's Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Other international players setting the NBA alight are Finland's Lauri Markkanen, Lithuania's Jonas Valanciunas and Domantas Sabonis and the newly crowned Rookie of the Year,  France's Victor Wembanyama. Australia have numerous players in the NBA, like Pat Mills and Joe Ingles. They all have something in common. They excel in the FIBA game.

Minnesota's Nickeil Alexander-Walker was a vital player for Canada as they finished third at the World Cup

Nickeil Alexander-Walker of Canada and China's Kyle Anderson are benefitting from their World Cup experience in 2023.

Alexander-Walker, who will be with Canada at the Olympics, had 14 points, six rebounds and three blocks in Game 2.

For him, a summer with the national team allows him to work on aspects of his game that the T-Wolves advised him to.

"Now I know going through the summer, going into this live period with the (Canadian) national team, I get to actually work on something because I'm building toward something," Alexander-Walker said during the World Cup as per The Athletic. "I have a goal, and I have a purpose."

Anderson, also known as Li Kaier, has Chinese ancestry and played for China's national team for the first time last summer. 

For Minnesota, he had nine rebounds and eight assists to go with his six points in Game 2.

Rudy Gobert and France didn't have the strong World Cup they had envisioned last summer, yet it was still an important time for Minnesota's big center.

Last year before the tournament, France coach Vincent Collet said of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year: "Rudy Gobert needs to play with France to have the best possible NBA season in 2023-24."

Collet must have known what he was talking about because the tallest Timberwolf of them all, the 2.16m (7ft 1in) Gobert was just named Defensive Player of the Year a fourth time.