MINNEAPOLIS — The Timberwolves’ 17-point lead with 2 minutes, 49 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter Monday night against Sacramento at Target Center meant their nine-game losing streak was going to end.
How could one be so confident? All you had to do was look at the fact that since the 1996-97 season, the first year of play-by-play data, NBA teams entered Monday 0-8,378 when trailing by 17 or more in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. That nugget, from ESPN Stats & Info, meant that victory was inevitable for Minnesota.
There was only one problem. These were the Timberwolves — a team that can find a way to do the impossible. So even on a night when the Wolves established a franchise record by making 23 three-pointers (on 46 attempts) and Andrew Wiggins had 36 points, making 7-of-11 three-pointers, and added nine rebounds and eight assists the Wolves came away with a 133-129 loss in overtime.
Even by Wolves’ standards this was impressively bad — Minnesota held a 27-point lead in the third quarter — and those from the announced crowd of 13,449 who elected to remain until the end booed the team off the floor. Say this, they earned it.
Wolves point guard Shabazz Napier was so upset with himself for going 2-for-6 from the free-throw line that he headed back to the court after the game and shot about 100 free throws. He then attempted to say he and his teammates can get past a brutal loss that dropped them to 15-32 on the season and extended their losing streak to 10.
“Got to,” Napier said. “If you can’t, if you hang your head on it, once you do that you just start losing and losing and losing. As low as you can get, I think this is it. The only way you can go is up. So hopefully, these three, four days (off) will give us some time to refurbish ourselves, and go out and play a great game against the Clippers (on Saturday).”
The Wolves’ losing streak isn’t even their longest of the season. Their 11-game stretch that spanned almost the entire month of December finally ended the day after Christmas with a double-overtime victory at Sacramento. What made Monday’s loss all the more difficult to stomach is the Kings are almost as lousy as the Wolves. Sacramento is one spot ahead of Minnesota in the Western Conference at 17-29.
“I’ll say, we win as a team, we lose as a team,” said Ryan Saunders, who is in his first season as the Wolves coach after completing last season with the interim tag. “No matter what, we should be able to play with a 15-point lead with a couple minutes left. They made shots. We didn’t execute our defensive game plan. We didn’t get rebounds when we needed to. We didn’t make the needed plays. It ends up in a really tough one for us.”
Inexcusable is more like it.
De’Aaron Fox had 22 points for the Kings and tied the score with 3.6 seconds left in regulation after he intentionally missed a free throw, got the rebound and scored. That was part of a 33-11 run by the Kings over the final 5:42 of the fourth quarter.
Coming off the bench, Buddy Hield was the hero for Sacramento. He went 0-for-5 from the field and had only two points in the third quarter but then scored 20 in the fourth, making 6-of-6 from the field, including 5-of-5 on three-pointers. Hield finished with a game-high 42 points and, according to ESPN Stats & Info, became the second player in the past 20 seasons with a 20-point fourth quarter, while shooting 100 percent from the field, in a game his team overcame a 25-point deficit.
There wasn’t one member of the Wolves who could escape blame for this debacle. This included Saunders, who got overconfident too early and began substituting for regulars. Karl-Anthony Towns, Napier and Wiggins all came out with 1:39 left in the fourth quarter and the Wolves up by 13. They went back in with 37 seconds remaining and the lead down to seven. “Hindsight is 20-20,” he said. “It was two minutes right there. I would say a lot of people would have done that. I did take those guys out. I had confidence in those other guys, too.”
Unfortunately for the Wolves coach, they did not reward that confidence. Fox had six points in overtime and former Wolves player, Nemanja Bjelica, had five for the Kings. Towns looked like anything but the Wolves’ best player as he went 0-for-2 from the field in overtime. Towns finished with 23 points, eight rebounds, four assists and seven turnovers and underwhelmed for the most part.
Asked about an air ball by Towns and the fact it appeared he didn’t want the ball in overtime, Saunders said: “No. I think it was, we got hit. There was a bit of being stunned towards the end there. We have to learn from that. That’s all we can say right now.”
Napier actually had more to add. Given the opportunity to say the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant on Sunday might have taken a mental toll on Napier and his teammates in the second half, Napier made it clear those in the home locker room needed to be accountable for what happened.
“I mean the loss of Kobe definitely is something that we all think of,” he said. “But the competitor he is, he would be upset with us, truly upset with us, and I think once you step (in between the) lines all you’re thinking about is playing the game and playing at the highest level. Today, we did a dishonest to him, to the Minnesota Timberwolves organization, to the fans. We didn’t play to our capabilities in the second half and we started playing with the lead and if you can’t play with the lead the basketball gods will take over and smack you in the face with a loss like this.”