Nearly a decade into Timberwolves career, Karl-Anthony Towns has been waiting for this moment.

As the final seconds expired in Minnesota’s Game 7 victory against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals, Karl-Anthony Towns processed an onslaught of emotions.

The Timberwolves’ first conference finals appearance in two decades; the responsibility Towns felt for getting the team into this position; his commitment to the franchise and the Twin Cities; the blame he absorbed in season’s when the Timberwolves didn’t reach expectations; the loss of his mom, Jacqueline, from COVID-19 in 2020, and the all-important role he played in Game 7.

It was a fitting conclusion to the series for Towns, who had 22 points and 12 rebounds and played outstanding defense on NBA MVP Nikola Jokic.

After a 36-46 season in 2018-19, Towns posted on social media, “Minny deserves better. I plan to give it to them.” Five years later, through sorrow, joy, recovery and rediscovery, Towns delivered.

“It's a feeling that I've been waiting for a long time just to have that moment,” Towns told USA TODAY Sports. “When those closing seconds came and you really could sense the game was ours, the feeling of jubilation was something special. It was just a culmination of a lot of hard work, dedication and perseverance finally materializing to something great.”

Karl-Anthony Towns during Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
Karl-Anthony Towns during Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

Dallas took Game 1 of the conference finals and Game 2 is Friday (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).

"We're going to have to find a way to even play more Timberwolves basketball for a longer set of time," Towns said. "Our discipline has to go up a level. Our execution has to go up a level. Our composure has to be at an all-time high. We have to have a championship mettle to us."

Towns was fantastic against Denver, averaging 18.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists and shooting 51% from the field and 39.4% on 3-pointers. His defense proved effective on Jokic. When Towns was the primary defender, Jokic shot 43.6% from the field and 19% on 3-pointers in the seven games compared to his regular-season averages of 58.3% and 35.9%.

The Timberwolves don't win Game 7 without Towns' performance.

“When you have a three-time MVP, it's going to be a team effort,” Towns said. “You do your best to contain and do your best to utilize your God-given talents and intangibles to guard him.

“When you know that you have the support behind you that I do – Rudy Gobert is four-time Defensive Player of the Year and Jaden McDaniels is a future (DPoY) – you feel comfortable being really aggressive in your defense knowing your teammates got your back.”

'That special thing that special teams have'

Listening to Towns and seeing the results, his growth as a leader is obvious and necessary. When he talks about 2023-24 being the best season of his career, it’s not just because he averaged 21.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and shot 50.4% from the field and 41.6% on 3-pointers. Those aren’t career highs. But the Timberwolves are in the conference finals for the first time since 2004.

“I've been able to impact this team's success in winning in a much higher way than I have in years before,” said Towns, who was an All-Star for the fourth time this season. “So it's about winning. For me to find the best way I can utilize myself for team success is what makes this my best year.”

He throws praise in all directions and wants everyone associated with the franchise to feel a part of the success – from Anthony Edwards to the ticket salesperson to the gameday usher. The feeling of “team” is something that took hold in his one college season at Kentucky in 2014-15.

Then-Wildcats coach John Calipari recruited talented players who could’ve starred elsewhere and averaged more points to sacrifice.

“I see that a lot in our team now, that unity, that cohesiveness, that togetherness, that special thing that special teams have,” Towns said. “It's a selflessness that you need to be willing to win a championship. And I think that's what makes this team so special this year is that there's such a selflessness.”

Re-discovering the love of the game

Towns’ perspective is shaped by life experiences. The loss of his mother in the early days of the pandemic, shattered Towns. She was just 59 years old.

“In a world that was putting so much weight on my shoulders, she allowed me to take that backpack off with the rocks in it and be weightless and that was gone,” Towns said.

Dark days followed. The light had trouble finding its way in, the joy seemed far away and he drifted from his connection to basketball – all understandable in grief.

Towns prioritized his mental health through self-care, and with time, he rediscovered his love of basketball. He wasn’t afraid to express his feelings and invested time in people and projects meaningful to him.

“I had to learn how to take care of myself mentally at the highest level when the things that had brought me peace and had brought me mental stability weren't there anymore,” he said.

On the day of this interview nearly 24 hours before the Timberwolves opened the Western Conference finals against the Mavericks, Towns was home and celebrating an anniversary with his girlfriend Jordyn Woods. They planned to eat dinner at home and then decide what to watch – a movie or TV show.

“This is where my experience kicks in,” Towns explained. “Basketball's what I love, it's what I do, but it's not who I am. And I understand that.”

KAT's voice for change

Last week, Towns was given the NBA’s 2023-24 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion Award for “for his dedication to pursuing social justice and upholding Abdul-Jabbar and the league’s decades-long values of equality, respect and inclusion.”

He pushed for a bill that restores voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals, was a producer on the documentary "Forgiving Johnny," which explores how technology and diversion programs can help developmentally challenged defendants. He is also a board member on the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition which aims to “promote policy, build strategic partnerships, and empower action in NBA markets across the nation,” and his fundraising effort for the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities is helping young people get access to mental wellness support.

Towns said he was speechless when he watched a video of Abdul-Jabbar informing him he was the recipient of the award.

“Being able to share my mother's love with the world is something I always want to do, and it's the gift that I'm blessed to say has kept giving and it's been something that's helped a lot of kids and families' lives.” Towns said. “And I'm forever thankful for the teachings and lessons she gave me and teaching me the meaning of the word love.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Timberwolves' Karl-Anthony Towns was waiting for NBA playoffs moment