PHILADELPHIA – Every year, you can say there are nights when an NBA season simply catches up with every team.
You just can’t say that with now eight games remaining and the Timberwolves’ first playoff appearance since 2004 on the line.
Undermanned and overwhelmed, the Wolves lost resoundingly 120-108 to the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday, less than 24 hours after a demanding victory at New York and a three-hour travel delay overnight.
“You can’t say that,” Wolves point guard Jeff Teague said, “but it’s the truth.”
Friday, the Wolves played to the finish to record a 108-104 victory over a Knicks team that had won three of its past 22 games. Then the Wolves didn’t get to their Philadelphia hotel until after 3 a.m. because their chartered airplane had a mechanical issue.
Saturday, a team that played its 12th consecutive game without injured All-Star Jimmy Butler couldn’t find a pulse against a rising Sixers team, until Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau emptied his bench to start the fourth quarter.
With the starters on the sidelines and little-played reserves Aaron Brooks, Cole Aldrich and Marcus Georges-Hunt on the court, the Wolves cut what was a 29-point deficit down to nine three times in the final 2 ½ minutes.
“We were just searching at that point,” said Thibodeau, whose team remained seventh in the Western Conference despite Saturday’s loss.
Rookie guard Ben Simmons had his 10th triple-double, with 15 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds, as Philadelphia clinched a winning record, just as the Wolves did the night before.
Outshot 6-3 on three-pointers in the first quarter and outscored 15-2 to start the third, the Wolves never matched the energy of Philadelphia, which pushed the ball at will with the 6-10 Simmons leading the way.
“I think they realized we were on a back-to-back because they got out and started running,” Teague said.
The Sixers might not have known the Wolves sat on their plane after Friday’s game and didn’t reach Philadelphia on a 22-minute flight that night until they appropriated the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres plane that just had just landed at the gate next to theirs. The Wolves didn’t arrive at their hotel until after 3 a.m. Saturday.
“That was crazy,” Teague said. “We could have taken buses and gotten here faster. But freak stuff happens and that happens.”
The Wolves provided little resistance until their reserves came in. Teague said he knew long before then that it might be one of those nights.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game from the circumstances,” Teague said. “We could see it in walkthrough — guys were a little fatigued, it’s not an excuse — but I think everybody knew. I think Thibs knew, too.”
Thibodeau acknowledged Friday’s hard-fought game and the plane problem, not to mention an early 6 p.m. start in Philadelphia after a long night.
“Yeah, but in the NBA there’s an excuse every night if you choose to use that,” Thibodeau said. “You want to build a mental toughness that you can overcome whatever is in front of you. That’s what we have to do. If we want to do all the things we say we want to do, we have to be mentally tough.”
They didn’t show such toughness until their reserves outscored their 76ers counterparts 37-22 in the fourth quarter. Philadelphia coach Brett Brown sent starters Simmons and star Joel Embiid back into the game with 2½ minutes left and the Wolves within 10.
The Wolves fouled both players, hoping for a miracle that never came.
“You always have a chance,” said backup point guard Tyus Jones, who played the fourth quarter with Gorgui Dieng, Hunt, Aldrich and Brooks. “We knew if we could slowly chip away: They miss a few shots and we make a few more, it’s a one-possession game. That’s what we were trying to do. We just ran out of time.”