Chris Finch is coaching through pain and pushing Timberwolves to new heights: ‘He’s a warrior’

DENVER — The news conference podium at Ball Arena sits on a stage in the Denver Nuggets media room. The three-step climb to get to it is light work for most NBA players and coaches who sit behind the microphone. But for Minnesota Timberwolves coach Chris Finch, it must feel like scaling a mountain. 

To get there, Finch first has to hand his crutches to a member of the Timberwolves PR staff. He then grimaces as he puts most of his body weight on the handrails to pull himself up to the table. Getting down can be even trickier as he looks to avoid putting too much strain on a heavily braced right knee that exploded at the end of the first round after a collision with Mike Conley. 

Talk to anyone who has ruptured a patellar tendon, and the first thing that comes up is the searing pain that radiates through the affected leg, both before and after surgery. It is a traumatic injury that generally calls for patients to keep their leg elevated and immobilized for a stretch after it is repaired to aid healing and reduce the pain. Finch was back at practice, crutching around the court, the next day and on a flight to Denver to join his Timberwolves for Game 1 two days after he was cut open. 

He has told those around him that he is in near-constant pain, his face unable to hide it no matter how hard he tries. And yet there he was in Denver, refusing to stay behind as his team opened its second-round series against the defending champions. His players and coaches were going there to fight, letting the rest of the NBA know that these aren’t the same hapless Wolves that have been so easy to overlook for most of their 35 years in the league. So that meant Finch was going to fight, too.  

“He’s a warrior,” said assistant coach Micah Nori, who has filled in as the coach patrolling the sideline while Finch watched from the second row to protect his knee. 

The team is emulating that grit in these playoffs. After a 1o6-80 wipeout of the Nuggets in Game 2, they improved to 6-0 in the postseason. They will come home for Games 3 and 4 on Friday and Sunday with a real chance to complete their second straight sweep. The overriding theme during this early ride has been lock-jawed defense and take-no-prisoners toughness. It was too much for the Phoenix Suns in the first round. It has been too much for the defending champions, who are down 2-0, in the Western Conference semifinals.

Three and a half years ago, Finch came to a shaken organization that had lost its will to compete. They were 7-24 when he took over in the middle of the 2020-21 season, and thousand-yard stares greeted him as he arrived after a controversial hiring process.

In that time, Finch has built a coalition of support from across the organization. The primary drivers of his high approval rating include an even-keeled demeanor, his open-door policy with players and a savvy feel for the political aspects of the job that include working with the media and fostering connections with ownership and the business side of the operations. 

He is not a fiery quote machine like Denver’s Michael Malone. He doesn’t pontificate the way Golden State’s Steve Kerr does. He has not yet accomplished enough in his head coaching career to exhibit the gravitas of Gregg Popovich or Erik Spoelstra. He has never been a softie, but the seriousness of his focus has often been shrouded by a genial effect. Underneath the unassuming public persona burns a competitive fire that has changed everything for these Timberwolves. 

The more we win, the more I want to win.

It is a mantra for Finch and it is revealing itself more in this series than it ever has. No one in their right mind would have hopped a plane to Denver two days after major surgery and eschewed a scooter or some sort of wheeled transportation around the cavernous Ball Arena in favor of walking gingerly with a crutch under each arm.

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Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch isn’t quite as mobile as he used to be after suffering a serious knee injury and then having surgery. (Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

As erudite as Finch can present when talking about basketball and life, the macho athlete is still inside of him. The one that once, according to legend at his NCAA Division III college in his native Pennsylvania, picked a teammate up off the ground in the halftime locker room while he challenged him to catch the ball when Finch passed it his way. 

Every NBA coach has a little crazy in them. That’s what it takes to climb the ranks, deal with the egos, manage their own and sit on a seat that can get hot with any losing streak. It is part of what kept Finch going when he was coaching basketball neophytes in England or drawing up plays on whiteboards for his team while it was stuck in traffic in Belgium. It is what kept him grinding for 10 years as an NBA assistant while getting turned down over and over again for head jobs until the Wolves finally came through. 

It’s what pushed him to go to Denver with his team. They have  come too far for him to let this pain get in the way of their pursuit of a championship. It is not that he doesn’t trust his assistants to handle the job in his absence. To the contrary, Finch empowers his staff as much as any coach in the league, which is why the Wolves haven’t missed a beat against the Nuggets. 

This was more about sending a message to his players. He wasn’t going to leave them in the middle of a fight. 

I can imagine the doctor told him not to travel and not fly, and Finchy said, ‘Hell no, I’m gonna be there for my team,’ ” Karl-Anthony Towns said. “So the leader of our team, when you have someone who is willing to fight like that, of course, his troops are willing to fight just as hard.”

Finch has pushed these Wolves to shed the failings of the past and reinvent themselves. He has asked them to sacrifice for each other, to prioritize defensive rotations in the age of @BallIsLife highlight packages, to play back-to-backs when others would rest. When you ask so much of those playing, you better offer as much to them in return. 

“If he’s going to tell us to play through injuries and stuff like that, he better damn well be on that bench,” Conley said with a smile. “So he’s doing a great job.”

That’s what Finch did in Denver. He was there in the heat of the battle with them, motioning to Anthony Edwards for counsel in the closing moments of Game 1, challenging the bench players to be better at halftime and pushing them to keep their foot on the gas as they blew the Nuggets out in Game 2.  

He came to Minnesota with the reputation of being an offensive innovator, conjuring visions of a wide-open, free-flowing, high-scoring attack centered around Towns, Edwards and, at the time, D’Angelo Russell. But in short order, he and president of basketball operations Tim Connelly have remade the team’s roster and its psyche. One-way players like Russell and Jaylen Nowell are out. Conley, Rudy Gobert and Nickeil Alexander-Walker are in. Defense over offense. Fists over flash.  

A team long criticized for being soft is as tough as they come right now. They have taken a sledgehammer to the defending champions in their second-round series, embodying the mindset of their wounded head coach. 

The players see how much this hurts him, which underscores how badly he wants it. The Timberwolves have been the hungrier team in the first two games against the Nuggets, which appear to be shocked by the intensity and ferocity that Minnesota is bringing. Denver is playing like a team with nothing left to prove after winning the title last year.

The Wolves are playing like a team with everything to gain as they look to put years of losing behind them. Their coach wants it as badly as any of them.

“He hops over on the crutches at times when he’s yelling at guys behind the bench,” Conley said. “That passion he has for the game, it’s rubbing off on other guys. We’re doing a great job of keeping him involved, keeping him engaged and he’s doing a great job keeping on us and just being who he is.”

The layout of Ball Arena is such that the walk from the visitor’s locker room to the postgame news conference room is a long one. Finch elected to have Nori make that walk after Game 1. But after watching his team smash the Nuggets in Game 2, the head coach decided to make the trek himself. 

“A lot of adrenaline surging through my body right now,” Finch said. “See what tomorrow brings. They’ve been great. Everybody’s been great.”

Moments later, Finch got up from his seat and carefully stepped off of the dais to head to the team bus and a return flight home. Games 3 and 4 await this weekend in Minnesota. The champs are on the ropes but by no means knocked out. His team has a championship gleam in their eyes, but are still only halfway through Round 2. 

The climb is only just beginning.

(Top photo of Chris Finch and Michael Malone: Garrett Ellwood / NBAE via Getty Images)

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