That it was so close so late is rather astounding, when considering that, with less than 2 minutes left in their game with the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday at Target Center, with the crowd on its feet, the Timberwolves had hit a grand total of one field goal in the fourth quarter.
This, later, was generally seen as a sign of growth.
The Wolves lost 110-105. After Andrew Wiggins pulled them within a point with two free throws with 1 minute, 43 seconds left before the Clippers — who have won seven of nine games despite key injuries — did what had to be done to seal the win.
Spencer Hawes responded with a corner three-pointer. Moments later, with Kevin Garnett looming over him, Chris Paul scored the final two of his game-high 26 points with a looping 19-footer with 38 seconds left.
And yet, afterward, optimism.
“You know what, I’m taking this,” said Garnett, who scored 12 points. “I like our fight.”
Or coach Flip Saunders, who thanked the fans for their late-game frenzy and apologized for once again letting them go home unrewarded. “I can’t fault our guys,” he said. “We came back, outrebounded them. Defensively, we held them under 50 percent. … Earlier in the year, if we fall behind by 15 [early], we’d lose by 30. Now we’re fighting back.”
In a season built around the process of development, perhaps that will do. The Wolves played without center Nikola Pekovic because of his sore foot and without guard Kevin Martin, who had the flu. The Wolves started slowly, were behind by 18 points almost before the announced crowd of 18,239 was fully settled in.
And yet they fought back to lead at the half, after three quarters, and were tied 91-91 early in the fourth. Even in a 1-for-14 fourth quarter — only the third time the Wolves have been held to one field goal in a quarter — their aggressive play got them to the line enough times to keep it close.
“We played bad in the fourth quarter, that’s why we lost, but the good thing is we fought all the way through,” said Ricky Rubio, whose 18 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists gave him the fourth triple-double of his career. “We keep improving and learning every day. And the good thing was the defense was there to keep us in the game.”
It was a night of big individual performances. Gorgui Dieng had a double-double starting in place of Pekovic. Gary Neal had 19 points and nine rebounds filling in for Martin. Rookies Wiggins (18 points), Zach LaVine (14) and Adreian Payne (12) scored in double figures. The Clippers got 18 from J.J. Redick, 12 points and 18 rebounds from DeAndre Jordan.
The game also featured seven technicals, with Saunders and Redick both getting them late for jawing at each other. Redick earned another and an ejection for complaining about that call.
And the fourth quarter? A statistical anomaly. The Wolves went 1-for-14 but stayed close because they got to the free-throw line 17 times, making 16. Again, Saunders said that earlier in the year, had the shots not been falling, his guys might have given in. Instead, they kept attacking. Both Wiggins and Neal were 4-for-4 on free throws in the fourth. Dieng hit two, as did Payne, LaVine and Rubio. Neal missed right on a three-pointer that would have tied the score with 10.9 seconds left.
“You’re playing these teams that have been together six, seven years,” Garnett said. “This group has been together 30 seconds. …When you take [the Clippers] to the point where they have to go into their bag and actually have to execute, it says a lot. At times our immaturity showed. But it’s promising.”