OKLAHOMA CITY – Befitting the election year that it is, Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau implored his team Saturday night at Oklahoma City to “build a wall” around Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook without saying just who would pay for it.
The ultimate cost for allowing Westbrook a typical 28-point, eight-assist, six-rebound, three-steal night and yet another abominable third quarter by his own team was a 112-92 loss at Chesapeake Energy Arena that leaves the Kevin Durant-less Thunder 5-1 to start the season and the Wolves now 1-4.
The Wolves examined game film for nearly two hours before they left Minneapolis bound for Oklahoma on Friday, but none of it prevented another lopsided third quarter in which they again essentially lost the game.
“Third quarter was tough,” Thibodeau said. “Last two minutes of the second quarter weren’t good, either.”
Leading by a point with five minutes left before halftime, the Wolves were outscored 18-11 to end the first half and then surrendered an 18-1 third-quarter run, just as they had done in allowing a 24-1 third-quarter run in Sacramento a week earlier and a 28-7 third-quarter Denver run at home on Thursday.
“We needed to compete harder,” Wolves forward Andrew Wiggins said succinctly.
Wiggins spoke after a 3-for-13 shooting night in which teammate Karl-Anthony Towns scored one-third of his team’s points despite not playing the entire fourth quarter because his team already trailed by 24 points about the time he usually re-enters the game.
Towns scored 25 points by halftime — when the Wolves trailed 59-53 — and with 33 points scored he was within two points of tying his career high when he left at third quarter’s end, never to return.
Afterward, Thibodeau was asked if his team’s offense again stagnated, this time perhaps because the players watched Towns do so much himself, including a highlight-reel drive to the basket in which he nimbly split two defenders and finished with a lefthanded layup instead of his dominant right.
“No, because we can play off him,” Thibodeau said. “If a guy gets going and they’re putting two guys on him, you can get good shots off that. But the ball has to move. It has to change sides of the floor.”
And that again was Thibodeau’s main complaint about Saturday’s third quarter, when the Wolves neither moved the ball or defended to his liking.
Westbrook repeatedly broke the Wolves’ defense down by dribbling into the paint, at least until he, too, sat out the fourth quarter. Thunder coach Billy Donovan called Westbrook’s playmaking from such situations “incredible” on a night his team scored 70 points in the paint. When not creating for others, Westbrook scored eight points in that decisive 18-1 run.
The Wolves offense? Not so much.
“You have to make plays,” Thibodeau said. “You have to move the ball side to side. When we did that, we got good looks. We didn’t make some of those, but where we got in trouble is when we tried to do too much. You have to hit the open man.”
The Wolves have played their past three games with rookie Kris Dunn and second-year Tyus Jones running the offense because Ricky Rubio is out injured (elbow). Thibodeau refused to blame the team’s ball movement — or lack thereof — on young point guards.
“It’s everyone,” he said. “You need five people moving the ball, know when to shoot, when to pass. It’s an important part of winning.”
Towns called for patience after this latest defeat.
“We’re all learning with each other, coaching staff and players,” Towns said. “It’s a collective effort. We’re getting better every day. Tonight might not have been the night that shows it, but we’re making leaps and bounds and strides every day. It’s all going to come together, and when it does, it’ll be a very scary thing.”