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Karl-Anthony Towns’ battle with referees wages on, and Timberwolves suffer because of it

Towns is whistled for the most fouls a game in the league, at 3.8 per contest. He also has been called for the most offensive fouls in the NBA, and it’s not particularly close.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Atlanta Hawks
Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) reacts after being called for a flagrant and a technical foul against the Atlanta Hawks during the second half Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.
Dale Zanine / USA Today Sports
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Karl-Anthony Towns is at it again. Minnesota’s all-star center is waging frequent battles with NBA game officials. The loser of it Wednesday in Atlanta was a familiar casualty: the Timberwolves.

The Timberwolves came unglued in the third quarter of Wednesday’s 134-122 loss to the Hawks, and Towns’ incessant griping was at the center of it.

It hit a crescendo at the end of the quarter when Towns scored on a one-legged turnaround fadeaway at the buzzer to pull Minnesota within eight. Then he proceeded to stand over and stare down the Hawks’ Onyeka Okongwu to draw a technical foul.

Then, as officials reviewed the play to see if Towns got the shot off in time, they found he kicked Okongwu on the shot attempt, which wiped away the bucket and led to a flagrant-one assessed to Towns. Atlanta’s lead ballooned to 13 after the ensuing free throws and the game was all but over.

“I’ve never seen it in NBA basketball,” Towns said after the game. “All I got to say is Dirk Nowitzki got put on the court for doing the same shot.”


He then noted other contemporaries who take similar shots, such as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. That’s true, but watch those players attempt that shot and they don’t extend their leg to create the 90-degree angle Towns created when making contact with Okongwu. Just like how players don’t thrust their leg out to the side on jump shots in the way Towns does to repeatedly draw offensively fouls.

Wednesday’s flagrant wasn’t a call made on a split-second decision by an official on the floor. It was called after a group of people got together and watched a slow-motion replay. If something is ruled a flagrant in that moment, then that’s probably what it is by the letter of the law.

Even when the contact Towns draws with the leg kicks are initially ruled defensive fouls, they are almost always immediately challenged by opponents, and reversed upon review.

Towns was tagged for an offensive foul for that exact play late in Minnesota’s loss to Memphis last week. He disputed that call, too, after the game. Yet the last two minute report confirmed it was indeed a foul.

“It’s about breaking habits, if that’s the case,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said of the leg kicks.

But it’s unclear if the Timberwolves truly believe that is the case. Because Towns — who largely declined comment on the officiating after Wednesday’s game because “telling the truth in this league gets you fined” — and Finch often indicate a belief that the 7-foot center is being wronged by officials.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins (20) and Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) get tied up causing a jump ball call during the second half Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.
Dale Zanine / USA Today Sports

“It certainly is frustrating to watch an all-star-caliber, All-NBA caliber center play hard and go to the hoop and (not) walk away with two free throws,” Finch said. “I don’t know what to tell him right now, to be honest.”

But that narrative simply doesn’t hold up when looking at the numbers. Towns gets his fair share of calls. He draws 5.7 foul calls per game, tied for seventh-most in the NBA. That’s more than LeBron James, and just a tick under James Harden, Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic.


The only players who draw significantly more fouls than that are Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. They both draw more than eight fouls per game, but most would argue they’re two of the toughest players to guard in the league with their combination of size, strength and craftiness.

On the flip side, Towns is whistled for the most fouls a game in the league, at 3.8 per contest. He also has been called for the most offensive fouls in the NBA, and it’s not particularly close. But that could also be habit driven.

And last-two-minute reports such as the one that came out after the Knicks game Tuesday suggest Towns could be whistled even more.

Per the NBA, Towns got away with hitting Evan Fournier’s arm with 100 seconds to play, which resulted in a Knicks turnover, and he held Julius Randle’s arm as Towns made his way to the hoop for the game’s all-important bucket with 30 seconds to play to help get the Wolves a win. On that same play, Randle was called for a foul that gave Towns a free throw on top of the bucket.

Despite getting a friendly whistle in the biggest of moments Tuesday, Towns reverted to crying foul a night later.

“He likes that rah-rah, you know what I mean?” teammate D’Angelo Russell said. “I realize he likes that, but it’s a fine line between where it affects the game.”

It certainly affected Wednesday’s game. Towns’ emotions did the Timberwolves no favors. That’s been a common occurrence in recent years. Russell said he can say as much as he wants to his teammate and friend, but noted, “I can’t do it for him.”

“He’s a smart guy. He knows what he’s doing. He knows what he’s saying,” Russell said. “It might affect the team. It’s a fine line of being solid when you need to be solid. There’s a time to be rah-rah and rowdy with the refs and whoever you’re battling against, but figuring out that time where it doesn’t affect the team, too.”

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