HOUSTON – The look on Ryan Saunders’ face said it all.
Mouth open. Head shaking side to side as he stared out at the court.
This reaction came after a miscommunication between Taj Gibson and Jerryd Bayless left the Rockets’ Danuel House Jr. wide open for a three-pointer in front of Saunders. He might have been the closest one to House, but there was nothing he could do to stop it.
It was a moment that encapsulated the Wolves’ Sunday night in their 117-102 loss to the Rockets and summed up where the team is this season.
Multiple injuries piled on top of a turbulent beginning to the season, and the result is more games like Sunday, which looked a lot like Thursday’s loss at Utah, which looked like Tuesday’s loss at Denver.
The Wolves just didn’t have the necessary defensive cohesion for 48 minutes, as hard as they may be trying to do so.
“No matter what position we may be in, I know that competitive spirit is still in all of us,” Saunders said. “Wherever our situation may be, whoever we may play, I know we’re going to give it all every single day.”
Their all just hasn’t been good enough as the Wolves wrapped up their fifth winless road trip of three games or more.
Chris Paul had 25 points on 6-for-7 shooting from three-point range while superstar James Harden had a quiet 20 points as Houston used a 43-point third quarter to pull away. Karl-Anthony Towns scored 22 points to lead the Wolves.
Houston was the cruelest of all road destinations for the Timberwolves a season ago. It was in the Toyota Center that Jimmy Butler injured a knee, requiring surgery to repair a torn meniscus and leading to a tailspin that dropped the Wolves from the third spot in the West to almost missing the playoffs.
It was also in Houston that their season came to an unceremonious end in Game 5 of the teams’ playoff series.
By the time the Wolves arrived in Houston on Sunday for their first game here this season, they were already a beaten team mentally and physically (injuries sidelined starters Jeff Teague and Robert Covington and top reserves Derrick Rose and Luol Deng). As a result, the Wolves have the worst defensive rating in the league since the All-Star break.
“We battled injuries for a good part of the year, and it’s just been something that you’ve got to deal with because other teams have to deal with injuries just like we do,” said Tyus Jones, who was scoreless in 29 minutes filling in for Teague and Rose. “We can’t feel bad for ourselves or use it as an excuse, but it’s definitely something we had to try to overcome this year.”
The Wolves did hold high-scoring Houston to 50 points in the first half.
“Unfortunately it’s a 48-minute game and not a 24-minute game,” Saunders said. “We just got to continue to try and sustain for a whole game.”
The Rockets feasted on the Wolves’ lack of three-point defense, especially in the third quarter when Houston scored 43 points and shot 10-for-18 from beyond the arc. They were 21-for-50 for the game, with House’s perhaps the most baffling and devastating of the bunch. It wasn’t the only open three the Rockets had.
“You don’t want to say you expect that with young guys at time, unfortunately that’s the reality,” Saunders said. “But there’s no excuses for not talking, and we’re going to continue to emphasize that as a group and continue to get better as a group.”
Or as Jones said: “Might as well continue to fight.”