Though his return to the starting lineup may be gradual, Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns proved Wednesday night that he is the x-factor for a team on the brink of playoff contention. Coming back from injury with a brilliant performance, the big man proved that he still has the ability to propel Minnesota from a first-round exit to a potentially deep playoff run.

In the Timberwolves’ game against the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday, Towns made his first appearance since recovering from a right calf sprain he suffered in late November. He only appeared on the floor for 26 minutes but scored 22 points with four rebounds and three assists. Minnesota won 125-124.

Though the Timberwolves, now 36-37, have managed to scrape together a credible season thus far without the services of its star center, Towns’ limited presence seemed to make an immediate difference. Fatigue was an issue but he still managed to produce as the team’s second-highest scorer, and trailing by one with 3.6 seconds remaining, he hit two free throws to win the game.

“As soon as they told me that, me and [Anthony Edwards] both looked at each and said the same thing: ‘Game’s over.’ Two free throws for me. That’s game, set, match,” Towns said. “I don’t think anyone in our team was doubting I was going to miss and I didn’t have one doubt in my mind I was going to miss either.”

With Towns back in the lineup, an already-tall Timberwolves roster gains even more size, as the center will likely share the floor with fellow bigs Rudy Gobert, Jaden McDaniels, Naz Reid, Kyle Anderson, Taurean Prince and others. Minnesota has been known to feature many of all of its taller players on the floor at the same time, a scheme the team used to great effect against Atlanta.

Coach Chris Finch noted after the game that Towns could slot perfectly back into the team’s existing style of play, as he did late in the game Wednesday.

“It’s obviously one of the beauties of KAT. You can give him the ball in a lot of places on the floor in high-leverage situations. He’s going to get a clean look, put a lot of pressure to get the foul,” Finch said.

Barring an unforeseen skid at the end of the regular season, the Timberwolves will soon begin to prepare for the playoffs after securing either a guaranteed spot or berth in the play-in tournament. The team remains a prohibitive long shot to win the NBA Championship coming out of an extremely competitive Western Conference. But with Towns likely returning to full strength by April, the team could be prepared for any test ahead.

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