HOUSTON – A year ago this month, Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau exited Toyota Center on the season’s final night muttering something about 13 fruitless seasons and how he was sick of the losing after living through only one.
On Wednesday night, he and his team left the very same arena with their first playoff season since 2004 ended by a 122-104 loss to Houston in five first-round games. They finally succumbed in another lopsided third quarter to the top-seeded Rockets’ relentless three-point shooting and sheer will.
Their season is over after 47 regular-season victories – including a play-in game victory over Denver in overtime on the season’s final day -- and five playoff games, the franchise’s first since the 2004 Western Conference finals.
Afterward, forward Andrew Wiggins called the season “not a success, but an improvement” after All Star Jimmy Butler needed February knee surgery and the Wolves lost to several suspect teams with and without Butler before they secured the West’s eighth and final playoffs spot when they sent the Nuggets home for the summer.
“We improved this year,” Wiggins said he went 5-for-14 from the field and scored 14 points. “We need to keep improving, just figure it out, figure everything out.”
Thibodeau praised his players’ 16-game improvement in the regular season from his first season as coach and president of basketball and that first playoff appearance since Kevin Garnett and Latrell Sprewell played there as well.
Butler called the season and Wednesday’s elimination a launching point for a team that added several veterans last summer to young stars Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.
“They know what it takes to get yourself to the playoffs,” Butler said. “Now we’ve got to figure out what it takes to win whenever we get there, no matter what seed we are. That’s what we’re expected to do. I’m proud of everybody.”
Butler played the five playoff games with his knee healing from February surgery, an injured wrist and a turned ankle and did not play Wednesday’s final 14 minutes because his knee was hurting.
By then, the Wolves trailed by a dozen points.
They were outdone Wednesday for the fourth and final time this series, this time by the Rockets’ 30-15 third quarter that didn’t approach the historic as their 50-20 third quarter did Monday in Game 4 at Target Center.
The Rockets’ James Harden-Chris Paul superstar backcourt scored just seven points combined in the first half, 19 in the third quarter alone and 36 for the game.
“We’re not that good that we can just pick out quarters,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.
But Wednesday’s third quarter was just as damning after Houston outscored them 6-0 on threes in the quarter – and doubled them 18-9 in the game -- and quickly turned a 59-55 halftime deficit into an 85-70 bulge in the third quarter’s final 90 seconds. The Wolves had made one fewer three (7) by halftime than the Rockets despite shooting half as many, but that didn’t last.
Harden made three of the Rockets’ six threes in the third quarter while teammate Clint Capela hurt the Wolves all night with his 26-point, 15-rebound performance on 12-for-14 shooting.
“I’m trying to figure out the two shots he missed,” Paul said.
The Wolves didn’t go quietly into the good night, though, until after Jamal Crawford shoved former L.A. Clippers teammate Paul to the floor, earning himself a technical foul as that third quarter spun away.
The Rockets led by as many as 20 points in the game’s final minutes and Thibodeau soon thereafter brought starters Towns, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson to the bench as well for the final time this season.
Houston advances to the second round and the Wolves head into summer two weeks later than they’ve been accustomed these last 14 years, eligible eventually to sign Butler and Towns to massive contract extensions.
After he spent his first season on the jobs evaluating as coach and president of basketball operations what he had, Thibodeau remade the team last summer. He acquired veterans Butler, Crawford, Teague, Gibson and Aaron Brooks and in March added former league MVP Derrick Rose by trade or free-agent signings.
By doing so, Thibodeau attempted to change the team’s toughness as well as it culture, reminding reporters recently that a franchise that hadn’t made the playoffs far longer than other NBA teams had serious issues with both matters.
“I told the players I’m very proud of what we did,” Thibodeau said afterward. “To get out of the hole we were in, to win 47 games, to get in the playoffs after 14 years of not being in the playoffs, to do it in a very tight playoff race, to finish one game out of the fourth spot, it’s a major jump from where we were two years ago.”
Thibodeau sought change this season particularly by reuniting with Butler from their Chicago years together and with him providing drive, defense and direction the Wolves won those 16 more regular-season games.
“We went through a lot of adversity, we had injuries, a tough schedule, a tough last stretch to get in the playoffs,” Towns said. “We found ways to scratch our wins and put ourselves in this position. When you look back at the season, you look back at all the hurdles we had to jump to put ourselves in this position.”
The Wolves also won that play-in game over Denver and by doing so, they also earned the privilege to meet a free-shooting Houston team that won 65 games and made more than twice as many three-pointers as the Wolves in the two team’s four-game season series.
Now the Wolves go into their off-season aimed toward signing Towns and Butler to extensions. Rose will be an unrestricted free agent they’d like to sign and forward Nemanja Bjelica will be a restricted free agent who could command more on the open market than they can afford.
The Wolves reached Wednesday’s elimination after they nearly stole Game 1, were thumped in Game 2, won Game 3 at Target Center resoundingly and then allowed 50 third-quarter points – 50, count ‘em! – in a Game 4 blowout loss.
When they were at their best, they nearly matched – or as in Game 3, did match -- the Rockets’ three-pointer for three-pointer while attempted noticeably fewer.
Ultimately, though, the Wolves too often waged their battles against three-point shooting Houston by bringing a butter knife to the fight.
In all four games – and in Wednesday’s first half – the Wolves as often as not outplayed the Rockets only to be outdone by Rocket three-pointers and what Thibodeau was assessed two terrible quarters: A lopsided 37-17 second quarter in Game 2 and Monday’s 50-20 third quarter that was one point shy of the most points scored in a quarter of a NBA playoff game, 56 years ago.
Wednesday’s 30-15 third quarter wasn’t far behind.
“It was a good year overall,” Crawford said. “I think it would hurt for us whether it was today or Game 7. The end of the season when you’re not playing and there’s basketball still being played, it’s always going to hurt.”