MILWAUKEE – The Timberwolves were humming along, matching the frenetic pace of the Milwaukee Bucks, getting absurd contributions from the bench, matching the team with the NBA’s best record, on their court, without Karl-Anthony Towns.
And then, collectively, they hit a wall.
Here’s when it happened: two minutes into the fourth quarter. That’s when the Bucks went on an 18-2 run, when the Wolves started to look like a team playing for the second time in two nights, when Milwaukee broke away for a 140-128 victory.
“We hit a little bit of a wall there in the fourth,” guard Tyus Jones said. “Teams like that, you can’t afford to go a few minutes without getting some stops.”
A first reaction might be the Wolves, given the circumstances, did what they could. They got 67 points from reserves and hung with one of the league’s best teams, with Towns missing a second straight night while in the league’s concussion protocol.
But then you look: The Wolves allowed Milwaukee (45-14) to score 140 points, shoot nearly 53 percent overall and make 19 of 43 three-pointers.
True, the Wolves were relatively tired, and were without Towns, their best rim protector. But their three-game winning streak ended because of a lack of defense.
“The score, I think, isn’t indicative of how competitive the game was,” interim coach Ryan Saunders said of his Wolves (28-31), who ended the two-game, two-night road trip 1-1. Our guys did enough, effort-wise, to win. But defensively, we can’t give up 140 points.”
The Wolves starters struggled against their talented Bucks counterparts, getting outscored 106-61. All five Minnesota starters had negative plus-minus numbers, while all five reserves were plus players.
MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 27 points with 10 rebounds and seven assists for the Bucks, who won their fourth in a row. Khris Middleton scored 28 points, 22 in the second half.
The Wolves were led by Derrick Rose off the bench; he had 23 points. Reserve forward Anthony Tolliver hit five threes and scored 17. Luol Deng had 10, Jones nine. Taj Gibson led Wolves starters with 20 points.
The Wolves led by two after Rose scored with 10:37 left but went 2½ minutes without scoring. Milwaukee went on a 9-0 run that ended with two Antetokounmpo free throws. Gibson scored, but Milwaukee scored another nine in a row.
“They just kept the pressure on us,” said Tolliver, whose contributions also included a highlight-reel block at the rim to deny Antetokounmpo a second-quarter dunk. “And we actually continued to hit some shots. But we could never string enough stops together to go on enough of a run to get us back in the game.”
At this point in the season, that’s a problem. The eighth spot in the Western Conference is getting more distant, and the schedule isn’t getting any easier. The Wolves play host to Sacramento on Monday, then go on the road for three straight. It’s unclear when Towns will return, and the Wolves still await Robert Covington’s return as well; he has missed 22 games because of a bone bruise in his knee.
The way Wolves reserves have played in the past two games suggests the team would be in pretty good shape should it attain full health for the stretch run.
“I’m looking forward to when that day comes,” Saunders said.