MEMPHIS - Opening a new season in which their respected new coach seeks consistency and a complete performance, the Timberwolves greeted the Tom Thibodeau era with Wednesday’s careening 102-98 loss at Memphis that probably looked all too familiar to excited fans watching back home.
Thibodeau repeatedly used the word “discipline” when he meant the lack of it after watching his team jump to a 20-3 lead within the first five minutes, trailed by five points in the third quarter and led again by five in the fourth.
Ultimately, they lost to an undermanned Grizzlies team missing injured starters Tony Allen and Chandler Parsons as well as Brandan Wright, squandering a big lead just as the franchise had done so many times in recent seasons under coaches ranging from Rick Adelman to Flip Saunders to Sam Mitchell.
Playing their first game under new coach David Fizdale, the formerly grinding Grizzlies quickened their pace and played closer to the speed with which the former Miami assistant coach wants them to play.
They also shot themselves back into the game by making 11 three-point shots to the Wolves’ six, a margin that got Memphis back into a game that seemed nearly decided after only a few minutes.
All through training camp, Thibodeau preached the basics: cover the three-point line, play 48 minutes and execute, none of which the Wolves did in their debut.
“I said at halftime, the only way they were going to get back in this game was making threes and that’s exactly what they did,” Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “Even when they didn’t make a three, the process of spreading us out let them get to the basket too much. That falls on us. This is a hard loss, but we learn. Early on, our swagger was through the roof, and this humbles us a little bit. This is a game we didn’t want, but kind of needed.”
Before the Wolves dream of becoming the NBA’s next great young team, they first must learn what it’s like to prevail in the fourth quarter.
They let the Grizzlies back in the game by allowing too many three pointers — six in the first quarter’s final 6:15 alone — in the first half. They also committed what Thibodeau called too many “reckless” fouls in a second half when the Grizzlies attempted 21 free throws.
And in the fourth quarter, they allowed JaMychal Green’s crucial tip-in of a missed Memphis free throw that put the Grizzlies ahead for good, at 94-93 with 1:34 left. With 1:13 remaining, Wolves forward Andrew Wiggins missed two free throws that would have put his team back in the lead.
“Game changer,” said Wiggins, who scored 25 points but only two in a fourth quarter when he was defended primarily by 39-year-old Vince Carter. “Coach trusts me to make plays, help the team win and make shots when shots are needed.”
He missed those two big free throws. Towns missed a three-point shot that would have tied the score with 43 seconds left.
“Unfortunately, I missed the three,” said Towns, who scored 14 of his 21 points in the first quarter and only five after halftime. “That’s the game of basketball. It went in and out. I’ll take that shot every single time. Nine times out of 10, I hit that shot. [Wednesday] was the 10th time.”
Memphis’ Marc Gasol and Mike Conley made shots sandwiched around Towns’ missed three that pushed the Grizzles’ lead to 98-93 with 24 seconds left and won the game.
“The things we’ve been through, we’ve been through it all,” Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph said. “I don’t expect anything less of those guys.”
Thibodeau talked in patient, measured tones afterward about what his team must do better in such situations.
“We have to know the fourth quarter is different,” Thibodeau said. “The intensity is different. The decisions are different. We have to understand that. You have to do all the little things we didn’t do if you’re going to win games.”