SALT LAKE CITY – The Timberwolves were in the middle of a run as Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell stepped to the free-throw line in the third quarter. Mitchell made the first to put the Jazz ahead two. He missed the second.
But after the miss he cut through the lane, grabbed the rebound and hit the ball out of bounds off Andrew Wiggins to retain possession for Utah. Interim coach Ryan Saunders threw a crumpled-up piece of paper to the ground in frustration.
Moments later, the Wolves’ run was over and the Jazz was up eight on its way to a 120-100 victory over the Wolves at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
“It’s one of those backbreaking plays,” Saunders said. “That’s something we talk about every practice, every shoot-around in terms of pinching at the free-throw line. That was definitely one that hurt us.”
It hurt because the Wolves never seriously challenged for the lead after that, and it was the type of play that had nothing to do with the Wolves’ nightmarish Wednesday trying (and failing) to fly to Utah. The Wolves were stranded at an airport in Denver for 10 hours on Wednesday during a severe snowstorm that wouldn’t let them leave for Salt Lake City until Thursday morning. But Saunders didn’t want to let the Wolves use that as an excuse. He could point to Mitchell’s rebound as a brain cramp that had nothing to do with the Wolves’ travel troubles. It was just lackadaisical basketball at the wrong time.
“That’s bad on our part,” said Wiggins, who had 14 points in his return from a left quad bruise. “I think that gave them a little push. We got to do a better job.”
Added Karl-Anthony Towns, who said he wanted to see the play again on film: “He just got a rebound. It’s a mental lapse. We can’t have things like that.”
Saunders is trying to stamp out moments like that, moments that can have a debilitating effect, especially on the road. The Wolves had nearly made their way back after trailing most of the game, and they didn’t really sniff the lead after it. Utah went ahead 78-70 after the Wolves had made it 71-70, and the Wolves never got within one possession.
Towns had 26 points and 12 rebounds as he found success against Jazz defensive anchor Rudy Gobert, but foul trouble crept around him again. He fouled out with 4:13 to play.
“Things happen. Can’t control that,” Towns said. “I just went out there and tried to be aggressive.”
Towns committed three offensive fouls in the fourth quarter, including a flagrant one on Mitchell, who led Utah with 24 points.
To Saunders, Towns has been doing a “better job” of staying out of foul trouble of late, although there were some moments where Towns could have avoided a call.
“This is a tough defense in a lot of ways,” Saunders said, “and they can definitely frustrate you at times if you’re not going to get to your usual spots on things.”
Gobert and Derrick Favors made life miserable for the Wolves on the offensive glass in getting five rebounds each on that end of the floor. That led to 19 second-chance points for Utah. That, forward Taj Gibson said, also had little to do with being stuck at an airport all day. That, he said, was “effort.”
“We still got some growing pains and still got to sort some things out offensively, defensively,” Gibson said. “But if you want to give us that as an excuse you could give us that excuse. But I feel we had plenty of times and different methods to win the game.”