MINNEAPOLIS — It wasn’t clear if Karl-Anthony Towns was trying to convince the media members who surrounded him, or himself, that the 2019-20 Timberwolves still have hope, but that’s exactly what he was doing following his team’s 131-124 loss Friday night to the Houston Rockets at Target Center.
“I’m always gauging who we are by our standings,” Towns said after scoring a team-high 30 points. “We’re not out of it, obviously, but we have to go out and we have to make a run soon. You don’t want to be at the end of the season hoping people lose and you win. That’s not a situation that’s favorable for any person. We’ve got to make a run and we’ve got to put ourselves in position.”
These were the words of a player talking about a team that has hopes of securing a playoff berth in the spring. That isn’t going to be the Wolves. Not after an eighth consecutive loss dropped the Wolves to 15-30 and put them six games out of the eighth and final postseason position in the Western Conference. The only team below the Wolves in the conference standings is the Golden State Warriors, who at 10-36 are doing a brilliant job of checking out on the season.
The Warriors are giving their superstars a season off because they know they will get them back in 2020-21 and can insert a high draft pick. The Wolves are doing no such thing. They are simply a bad team trying to play a style that president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas brought with him from his former team, the Rockets. That would be the same franchise that came into Target Center on Friday and left with its 28th victory of the season.
The Wolves want to become the Rockets as soon as possible, meaning a team that can run-and-gun and hit numerous three-pointers. That’s what made Friday’s game so interesting. The Rockets did not win because of three-point superiority — the Wolves and Houston both made 11-of-32 from beyond the arc — rather they left victorious because offseason acquisition Russell Westbrook took the ball and did whatever he wanted. This included ignoring the blue print that his team used to beat the Wolves in a first-round playoff series two seasons ago.
Westbrook finished with a game-high 45 points on 16-of-27 shooting from the field with 10 assists and six rebounds. The former Oklahoma City Thunder star had 12 points in the opening quarter, six in the second, 12 in the third and 15 in the fourth. You know how many three-pointers he took? Zero.
Meanwhile, Rockets three-point ace James Harden was held to 12 points, thanks in part to good defense by Josh Okogie, and was 0-for-6 from three-point range. In other words, the team that gave Rosas confidence the three-pointer was the way to go beat the Wolves because of a guy who loves to shoot twos.
“When he has 45 points, he’s earned the right to do that, I think,” Wolves coach Ryan Saunders said of Westbrook. “(He’s a) former MVP. They’ve adapted to that. So a lot of his looks were at the rim, too. But he’s a guy who shoots a high percentage at that logo area on the faceup. He’s been doing that for years when he backs smaller guys down, he can rise up and hit that bank shot. So that’s a good shot for him.”
The sad thing about Friday’s game, played before an announced crowd of 16,101, was that it was entertaining enough that it felt like a successful effort by the Wolves. The eight-game losing streak is three off their worst of the season and since starting 10-8 the Wolves are 5-22. It shouldn’t be surprising that hanging close with Houston feels like a moral victory.
“I think there’s some games that we’ve had where — even with me playing — or with me on the sideline, obviously recently, I just didn’t think we competed or were aggressive enough, and I thought we were tonight,” said Towns, who returned from a 15-game absence caused by injury and illness last Friday. “So, obviously, it’s great to see. We’ve just now got to show consistency. That’s been our biggest problem, and we’ve got to do that (Saturday night) against the Thunder.”
That sounds good but the reality is it’s a long shot that’s going to happen anytime soon. The losses are going to continue to mount and the only hope is that the plan Rosas and Saunders have will begin to work before Towns becomes disgruntled.