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No Kat, big problem: Timberwolves called out for being ‘ridiculously bad’ in back-to-back losses

Timberwolves Lakers Basketball
Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders, center, watches his team playing during an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers in Los Angeles, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)

The fact the Timberwolves’ lost back-to-back games to the Lakers and Clippers in Los Angeles this week came as a surprise to no one. Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wolves’ best player, was lost to a dislocated left wrist in an upset victory on Saturday in Utah and, even had KAT been available, beating the two Los Angeles teams would have been difficult.

But there is a big difference between losing a game and getting embarrassed, and in both defeats the Wolves looked as if they had traveled west to audition for the Gong Show. Minnesota never attempted to compete with a Lakers team that was without Anthony Davis, losing by 36 points on Sunday. The excuses included the fact Ryan Saunders’ team was playing a back-to-back, facing the world champions and did not have KAT.

On Tuesday night, with a day off to freshen up, the Wolves returned to Staples Center, took an early lead and were tied at 39 in the second quarter. Then the Clippers got hot, the Wolves checked out, and the Clippers lead grew to 30 points en route to a 23-point victory. The Clippers did this without star Kawhi Leonard.

The Wolves opened the season with a shaky victory over the Detroit Pistons at Target Center before hitting the road and providing a solid effort on both ends of the floor against a good Jazz team. That’s what made the no-shows against the Lakers and Clippers surprising. No one is expecting Ryan Saunders’ club to do great things, but looking respectable in defeat shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Saunders, beginning his second full-season as coach after replacing Tom Thibodeau during the 2018-19 season, is about as even-keel as they get. He’s still only 34 years old and is the polar opposite of his predecessor. But even Saunders’ patient was wearing thin on Tuesday night as he watched his team freelance and go away from the game plan.

“When you start switching just to switch with it not being part of what we’re doing with certain guys, that’s going to cause confusion and miscommunication,” he said. “It wasn’t one guy. It wasn’t two guys. It was multiple guys that started doing that.”

That’s a problem. Without Towns on the floor, it’s imperative that players listen to Saunders’ directions, and, if it becomes clear they won’t, Gersson Rosas, the Wolves’ president of basketball operations, will find a coach who makes sure he’s not ignored. That’s the type of person who won’t be nearly as understanding as Saunders has been.

The frustration of losing two games by a combined 59 points also was felt by veteran guard Ricky Rubio, who was brought back to Minnesota in part to provide leadership in the locker room. Rubio hasn’t pulled any punches with the media so far this season, and he didn’t hesitate to share his disgust on Tuesday.

“When things are not going our way, everyone goes and plays selfish,” Rubio told reporters, according to Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic. “We gotta learn. You can put a lot of excuses (out there). (We’re) young, blah, blah, blah. But once you step on the court and you’re playing for an NBA team, the last two games it’s been ridiculous bad. There’s no other words to put it. We gotta get better.”

The Wolves are going to need to do so without their star.

Towns, who missed the final 12 games of last season because of a broken left wrist before the pandemic stopped play, will be evaluated weekly. The Wolves need far more from guard D’Angelo Russell, who was obtained from Golden State last season in order to pair with Towns, but so far has only played three games with his good friend.

Russell, who is beginning his sixth season, was a non-factor in the Lakers loss (four points, three assists), and had 22 points and four assists in 31 minutes on Tuesday. Only eight of his points came in the opening half against the Clippers when the game was still within reach. As Russell put up an errant shot in the second half, Fox Sports North analyst Jim Petersen compared it to an AAU play because Russell had no interest in moving the ball and involving teammates.

Many of you who probably didn’t see the game because FSN’s owner, Sinclair Broadcasting, hasn’t reached deals with popular streaming services, such as YouTube TV or Hulu Live. Believe me, they did you a favor.

The Wolves should have a chance to end their losing streak on Friday when they play host to Washington (0-4), but then it’s a home-and-home with Denver, which is 1-3 but expected to be a contender in the Western Conference.

The Wolves almost certainly will be without Towns for all three games, meaning Saunders will have to turn to Russell, Malik Beasley, Naz Reid, Rubio and others for production. Given the Wolves’ effort in the last two games, it’s anyone’s guess if he will get it.