MILWAUKEE – Everything has its breaking point, and the Timberwolves found theirs with big leads blown during Thursday’s uneven 102-96 loss to the Bucks.
They brought their five-game winning streak to their last regular-season game at the BMO Harris Bradley Center and built another double-digit advantage, but this time neither they nor Jimmy Butler could save them.
During that win streak, they built a 22-point lead at Phoenix and leads of 18 and 14 points against Denver and still found a way to win after giving most or all of it away.
Thursday, Milwaukee fans booed after the Wolves built a 74-54 lead, then cheered a Bucks 36-16 run that ended the third quarter and began the fourth. Milwaukee outscored the Wolves 27-12 in that fourth quarter of a game that saw only one lead change, when Eric Bledsoe’s three-pointer with 2:25 left put the Bucks ahead to stay.
“We’ve played with fire a little too much during this winning streak,” said Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, who scored 22 points on 8-for-12 shooting, including 4-for-8 on three-pointers. “Having big leads and then giving them up and still finding a way to pull them out to get the win, you play with fire too much. The basketball gods don’t like that. We could have done a lot of things differently to win this game. We played with fire one too many times, and it burnt us.”
The 20-point lead was their biggest blown lead in a loss this season, five more than the 15-point lead they gave away to Phoenix at Target Center two weeks ago.
This time, they did so playing their third game in four nights. Wednesday, they lost starters Towns and Taj Gibson to too many fouls and Jeff Teague to a knee injury and still beat the Nuggets in overtime 128-125, thanks mostly to Butler’s resolve and 39 points.
Thursday, the Wolves started Tyus Jones at point guard and then further improvised after Andrew Wiggins sprained his ankle in the third quarter and played on while Jones left the game for more than two minutes in the final five so his dislocated pinkie finger could be maneuvered back into place.
“A lot of moving parts” is how Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau described a game in which he also said his team “didn’t play well down the stretch.”
Led by blossoming star Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 22 points and 10 rebounds, the Bucks got back into the game by getting out in transition and attacking the rim at every opportunity. In the fourth quarter, Milwaukee shot 12-for-19 from the floor, including seven layups or dunks. The Wolves shot 4-for-19, including 2-for-10 on threes.
Only three Wolves scored in that quarter, with Butler scoring seven points, Towns three and Gibson two. They didn’t score a point from the time 4:19 remained in the game until Butler’s meaningless three-pointer at the final buzzer.
Veteran guard Jamal Crawford was asked if the Wolves’ busy schedule simply caught up with a team that started the game shorthanded and played even more so in the second half.
“I don’t know, maybe in reality,” Crawford said. “But we were good enough to get the 20-point lead. I’m not going to make any excuse. We have to find ways to win that game.”
Butler often says he trains all summer so he can be fit to play demanding nights like Thursday, when he played 43 minutes and scored 20 points.
He was asked if collectively his team is at that same level and whether his team simply got tired.
“It happens, man, we’re all human,” he said. “You can get tired. But my thing is, we can’t have that many mental lapses. We never should have been in that position to begin with. We have to be better building upon leads instead of giving them up and making it a close game where it’s a possession-by-possession game. All in all, we lost. Something to learn from.”