Before we get to the controversy that surrounded the closing seconds of the Timberwolves’ 108-106 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Saturday at Target Center, know one thing:
It shouldn’t have come to this.
Phoenix limped into town with a lengthy injured list and a five-game losing streak. The Suns proceeded to turn the ball over 27 times, trailing the Wolves — sometimes by double figures — for three-plus quarters.
The Wolves led by 15 with less than 2 minutes left in the second quarter, by 13 midway through the third.
And yet: With 6.1 seconds left in the game, with the Wolves clinging to a one-point lead, with the shot clock winding down on the Suns, Isaiah Canaan was fouled by Jeff Teague on a three-point shot.
Canaan (15 points) hit all three free throws, putting the Suns (10-21) up for good.
And now, the controversy: After the game Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said the officials hadn’t called a foul, but a shot clock violation, on that crucial play.
“They didn’t call a foul,’’ Thibodeau told reporters. “My interpretation is, what they called as a shot-clock violation.’’
Talking to a designated pool reporter after the game, crew chief Ken Mauer strongly disagreed, saying official Mark Ayotte had called a foul.
“The referee signaled the foul first, then signaled the 24-second violation, then he went like this,” Mauer said, circling his hand, “which means we are going to review it. I went over to review it, and the replay department, the replay center, confirmed the foul occurred with 0.2 remaining on the clock.’’
Thibodeau also said he was concerned with the conversation he had with the officials following the review and foul call, to which Mauer said, “I told Mr. Thibodeau, ‘Yes, he did call a foul.’ The play was handled correctly.’’
But again, it shouldn’t have come to this. The Wolves led from the opening tip, but never played well with a lead, allowing the Suns to close the first quarter on an 11-2 run, the second on a 7-0 run and the third on a 13-6 run, trimming the Wolves’ lead to four points entering the fourth.
But the bottom line is a loss, one that stings even more considering it appeared Jimmy Butler was nursing a sore lower back in the second half.
Three times the Wolves fouled a Phoenix player shooting a three-pointer, one of many reasons the Suns — who outrebounded the Wolves 52-31 and had their bench score 69 points — outscored Minnesota 31-17 on free throws.
Afterward, Thibodeau bemoaned a night’s worth of fouling jump shooters; Minnesota was whistled for just 19 fouls, but sent Phoenix to the line 35 times.
“If they’re calling it, you have to make sure you’re going in straight up,” Thibodeau said.
“We always do that,” said the Wolves Taj Gibson, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds. He and Karl-Anthony Towns (28 and 11) both had double-doubles.
“We get a good lead, get up 20, maybe 15, and start feeling good and we just have a letdown.”
The Wolves led by eight at halftime despite shooting 36.5 percent; missing an opportunity to open up a bigger lead.
The Suns took their first lead with 7:51 left on when Alex Len (12 points) scored on a putback. Moments later Dragan Bender (17 points) hit one of his two fourth-quarter three-pointers, putting Phoenix up two. Troy Daniels (17 points) hit a three-pointer with 5:45 left and the Suns’ lead was five. It was still five after Tyler Ulis hit an 11-footer with 5:16 left.
The Wolves roared back. Butler stole the ball and scored. Teague scored on a drive, then fed Gibson for a dunk and a one-point Wolves lead with 1:06 left.
T.J. Warren missed a 4-footer for Phoenix, and Butler missed for the Wolves. And then, Teague’s foul.
“I was trying to make him shoot a tough one,’’ Teague said. “I’ve seen situations like that and the ref will tell you, ‘I’m not going to bail him out.’ [But] he made the call tonight. We shot ourselves in the foot tonight. We had plenty of times to bury that team and we didn’t.”