Wolves interim coach Sam Mitchell was in the locker room for a long, long time after Monday’s game at Target Center. He wasn’t happy with what he’d seen. He didn’t hesitate to let the players know:
Even a team with relatively little to play for should play better than this.
“We moved a step backward,” Shabazz Muhammad said. “Which is not good.’’
Just call it the Timberwolves shuffle. Coming off a 3-0 road trip that included a nationally televised victory at Golden State, the Wolves came back home and fell flat in a 129-105 loss to a Houston Rockets team fighting for a playoff spot.
A few steps forward, a big step back.
The Wolves never led. They were down 17 after a quarter, 21 at the half, 29 after three quarters and by as many as 33 in the game. The Rockets’ 129 points tied a season high by a Wolves opponent.
This was not entirely unexpected. It was the Wolves’ first home game after an extended trip to the West Coast. Mitchell said he knew his players were tired after watching them at a sluggish morning shootaround. But …
“Yes, there are reasons,” Mitchell said. “I know our guys are tired. But I think, as coaches, we can’t let them give in to it. … We can’t let ’em think it’s OK.’’
It was another example of how different the Wolves have been at home and on the road this season. Monday’s loss dropped the Wolves (28-53 overall) to 13-27 at home, after going 15-26 on the road.
On the road have come some of the team’s most stirring victories — at Golden State, at Oklahoma City, at Chicago, at Atlanta. At home have come some of the most lopsided defeats. This was the Wolves’ eighth loss by 20 or more points, with five coming at Target Center.
That was the topic of discussion. Why the dichotomy? Mitchell surmised that his young team responds to the atmosphere of big games on the road. A decade-plus of losing has quieted the Target Center crowds.
“I wish I knew, man,” Gorgui Dieng said. “If I did, I’d probably do something about it.’’
The young Wolves were outmuscled by the Rockets (40-41). James Harden scored 34 points in less than 32 minutes. Dwight Howard had 19 points, Trevor Ariza 21. The Rockets’ victory, coupled with Utah’s loss to Dallas on Monday, meant the Rockets can clinch the final playoff spot in the Western Conference by winning their regular season finale Wednesday. The loss also had an effect for the Wolves, locking them into the No. 5 spot in the draft lottery.
“It seemed from the get-go we came out really flat,” said Muhammad, who led the Wolves with 23 points. “We have to have a sense of urgency. Coach is really disappointed in our effort. We played so well in those last three games.’’
Zach LaVine scored 21 points on 8-for-14 shooting. Dieng scored 13. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns each had 12.
The Wolves finish the regular season at home Wednesday against New Orleans. On paper, there is nothing to play for.
But, to a man, the Wolves talked about wanting to give the home fans something to celebrate before the season ended.
“The fans are there, they’re cheering for us,” Muhammad said. “We have to give them something to cheer for.’’