In the minutes before Tuesday night’s game, Timberwolves interim coach Sam Mitchell was in scramble mode.
He knew Kevin Garnett was going to rest. But, in the minutes before the opening tip, Andrew Wiggins and then Ricky Rubio were scratched, each with a sore knee. In rapid succession, Mitchell, already without his most veteran leader, also lost his most valuable playmaker. And his leading scorer, in Wiggins, who had 64 points in his previous two games.
“My concern was trying to get the other guys ready to play,” Mitchell said. “And when that happens 40 minutes before the game, you’re kind of crunched for time.”
Or kind of crunched, period.
The Wolves were game, but mistake-prone. The refigured starting lineup played well enough to win, but the injury-shortened bench cost them in a 104-95 loss to the Charlotte Hornets at Target Center.
It kept the Wolves (4-3) winless in three home games.
Four of five Wolves starters scored in double figures. Rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns had his fifth double-double in seven games (19 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks). Zach LaVine scored 20 with eight assists in his first start at point guard. Kevin Martin scored 18 points, Adreian Payne 10.
But the Wolves bench cost them. In a statistical quirk, all five Wolves starters were a net-plus at the end of the game. But all six reserves were a minus-9 or worse, with four minus-20 or worse.
Mitchell said the problem wasn’t the second unit, simply because the second unit wasn’t the one fans had seen over the first six games.
But the fact is, it was the Wolves makeshift bench that squandered the team’s 14-3 start to the game, then let Charlotte take back control after the Wolves had come back from 11 down to take a two-point lead in the third.
With Payne, Martin and LaVine elevated from the bench to the starting lineup, that meant a lot of minutes for players who hadn’t gotten many.
“You can play in a million preseason games, but that first game, everything seemed sped up,” said Tyus Jones, who played 12 ½ minutes in his first NBA action. He scored a point with an assist, going 0-for-4 from the floor.
The Hornets (3-4) took advantage of the thin Wolves bench in a big way. Jeremy Lin scored 19 points, Jeremy Lamb 18 and Cody Zeller 14 all off the bench for Charlotte, whose reserves outscored the Wolves reserves 57-23.
But that wasn’t the only problem. The starting backcourt of LaVine (eight) and Martin (six) combined for 14 of the Wolves’ 22 turnovers. The Wolves outrebounded the Hornets, got more second-chance points and more points on the break, but it was turnovers and fouls that hurt them.
“Just way too many turnovers,” Mitchell said. “They scored 22 points off our turnovers. That’s the game.”
And many were self-inflicted. The Wolves were called for traveling six times, had three offensive fouls and a three-second call.
That said, there were bright spots.
Towns was wonderful, with his fifth double-double and his sixth consecutive game with three or more blocks. Payne was efficient and LaVine had moments of brilliance. But it wasn’t enough.
“They’re amazing, they’re two superstars on the court,” Towns said of Wiggins and Rubio. “I knew I had to go out and produce at a high level. … I came up short. I didn’t do what I had to do to help us win this game.”
Mitchell? He hopes both Wiggins and Rubio can come back for Thursday night’s home game with defending NBA champion Golden State.
“I was pleased with our effort,” Mitchell said. “With how some guys stepped up into different roles and played well. But I’m not pleased about the turnovers.”