LOS ANGELES – During a season when coach Tom Thibodeau has played his two young star players seemingly endlessly, the Timberwolves ended Friday’s runaway 130-119 overtime loss to the Lakers without either Andrew Wiggins or Karl-Anthony Towns on the Staples Center court.
Wiggins fouled out with 1:17 left in overtime on a night when the Wolves led 108-100 with fewer than 2 ½ minutes left in regulation time and still lost to a slumping Lakers team that had won once since Feb. 10.
Thibodeau benched Towns for the game’s final 1:24 after Julius Randle’s tip dunk ended a 12-3 Lakers’ run that started overtime and gave them a 121-112 lead the Wolves never challenged again.
“I just didn’t like his defense,” Thibodeau said simply afterward.
Thibodeau had plenty not to like defensively about a team that led by 15 points midway through the third quarter and had victory all but in its grasp down the stretch. But Thibodeau’s team then surrendered nine unanswered points that included consecutive three-point shots, one of them a four-point play after Towns fouled Jordan Clarkson with 1:42 left in the fourth quarter.
The Lakers outscored the Wolves 21-4 over a five-minute span that ended the fourth quarter and began overtime.
By the time Randle ended that run with his tip-dunk, Towns was livid and Thibodeau wasn’t too happy himself.
When a longtime national reporter told Towns he had never seen him so upset and as him what got him “so hot” on that play, Towns said, “That’s a team thing. We move on to the next play. We’ve got to move on to the next game. So we’ve got to play them all and move on and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes.”
The Wolves lost a double-digit lead and the game for the 19th time this season – highest in the league – and did so on a night when the Lakers finally, in the words of coach Luke Walton, “channeled” the energy of a late-afternoon ceremony when the franchise unveiled a statue of Lakers legend Shaquille O’Neal on the Staples Center plaza.
“It’s discouraging because we’ve done this so many times now,” Towns said. “I think that’s the more discouraging part.”
Those consecutive three-point shots late in regulation time by D’Angelo Russell and then Clarkson’s rare four-point play brought the Lakers back from the precipice of potentially their 15th loss in 16 games.
Eventually, the Lakers ended a six-game losing streak while the Wolves lost their fifth consecutive game.
“When you’re up eight with two minutes left, even if you play terrible offense and you play good defense, that’s it, you win the game,” Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio said. “We didn’t do it.”
Leading by those eight points so late in the game, Thibodeau said he discussed with his players about going over the top of screens so they wouldn’t allow the three-point shots the Lakers desperately needed.
Thibodeau said his defenders lagged too far back and allowed Russell the first of those consecutive threes. Then he said they closed on Clarkson too late and with poor body balance and Towns fouled on the three-point attempt Clarkson also made.
Thibodeau also lamented the second of two free throws that Wiggins missed with 45.6 seconds left in regulation time that tied the score at 109. Those were the last points scored until overtime after Wolves big man Gorgui Dieng’s forced but open three-pointer from the right corner missed everything just before the fourth-quarter buzzer.
Wiggins scored 36 points on 14-for-28 shooting before he fouled out late in overtime. Clarkson’s 35 points – 25 of them after halftime – were a career high.
“We got a 13-point lead and we got loose,” Thibodeau said, underestimating the Wolves’ biggest lead by two points. “We had an offensive goaltending (committed by Towns), had some hero shots, had some poor decisions on the types of passes we were making. When you’re up 13 like that on the road, you have to play tough with a lead. You can’t get loose. You have to have discipline.
“If you don’t have discipline, that’s what happens.”
On the same day when the Lakers celebrated one of the NBA’s most dominant big men of all time by giving O’Neal his own statue, the Wolves celebrated the little guy.
Thibodeau did so when he played all three of his point guards – Rubio, Kris Dunn and Tyus Jones – together twice. Their presence and defensive aggression sent the Wolves off on a 15-2 run in the second quarter that gave them back the game’s momentum. They returned in the fourth quarter and quickly turned a one-point lead into that 108-100 lead over the next 4 ½ minutes.
“We were just searching,” Thibodeau said. “They were small. We were just trying to match up, speed-wise.”
It worked, until it didn’t.
“Our chances of playoff are almost over,” Rubio said. “We just want to keep playing hard. Tonight after losing four in a row, we want to show we have character. For a second we show it. But the game, it’s 48 minutes. We made a lot of mistakes again.”