Given the stakes, the standings, late in the season with a playoff berth almost in reach, this one was baffling. Stunning.
“Hard to explain,” Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Hard to explain.”
Monday, at home, in Target Center, with the race for the final spots in the Western Conference playoffs as tight as can be, against a team that had won just one game since Jan. 29?
The Wolves lost.
Outmuscled and outplayed, the Wolves lost 101-93 to a Memphis Grizzlies team that had lost 17 consecutive road games and had lost 23 of its past 24 games overall.
Up four points after three quarters, the Wolves (42-33) shot 3-for-17 down the stretch, turned the ball over eight times and lost, dropping them to the eighth in the West, a half-game behind Utah, 1½ games ahead of No. 9 Denver. In a season that has seen the Wolves endure some pretty tough losses, this one stands out.
“This is the worst loss,” point guard Jeff Teague said. “By far. This was a must-win for us. Every game down the stretch is a must-win. And against a team — not taking anything from them — they’re not playing for anything right now.”
Teague and Taj Gibson were two Wolves players who responded to the physical nature of the game and the pressure of the situation. Teague scored 25 points, had seven assists. Gibson scored 18 with eight rebounds and three blocks.
But it wasn’t enough.
The Grizzlies (20-54), who lost by 61 points at Charlotte on Thursday, stayed close early, had all the confidence late. They got 23 points off the bench from Wayne Selden, who hit four of six three-pointers and scored 23 points. Center Marc Gasol scored 20, making four of seven threes — and had 10 rebounds. He anchored the rough, tough Memphis interior defense down the stretch.
Memphis scored 40 points in the paint and hit 15 of 31 three-pointers, getting open look after open look all night long.
The Wolves scored only 11 points in the fourth quarter.
Asked after the game what disappointed him the most, Thibodeau said just about everything.
“Really all facets,” he said. “You can deal with the missed shots. That’s part of the game. We gave them 15 threes. The physicality of the game, we didn’t respond well to. We were searching the whole game. We needed a lot of guys to step up. We didn’t step up and we didn’t respond. I thought Taj and Jeff were terrific. They gave us a lot of fight. But we need everyone.”
Karl-Anthony Towns scored 15 points to go with 12 rebounds, but he was a minus-13, struggling against defender JaMychal Green. Nemanja Bjelica was a minus-18 with zero points in 22½ minutes. Andrew Wiggins scored 18 points. Jamal Crawford scored 10 but was 3-for-12 shooting, 0-for-4 in the fourth quarter.
Asked if physical play was a problem for his team, Thibodeau noted that’s exactly what injured Jimmy Butler brings.
But this was an upset brewing from the beginning. The Wolves trailed by a point after a quarter and had to rally at the end of the first half to forge a tie.
“We were playing with fire from the beginning,” Gibson said. “I could feel it.”
Eventually the fire got out of control. “They came out and kicked us,” Teague said.