In a Wolves locker room nearly as quiet as the Target Center had been just moments before, the frustration was palpable but the answers were elusive.
Monday, in a 112-103 loss to the Utah Jazz — the second straight for the Timberwolves and the team’s fifth in six games — the Wolves again struggled on defense, failed to protect the rim and were ultimately unable to stop a Jazz team that, while young, seemed a step ahead of the Wolves all night.
Coach Tom Thibodeau, it appeared, had had just about enough.
“Right from the start of the game, the offensive rebounding … ,’’ Thibodeau began. “The second quarter was a disaster. Fourth quarter, disaster. Thirteen blow-bys in the second half. Not good. I don’t know. We have to back it up. We have to take a look at everything.’’
The Wolves are 17 games in and the same defensive mistakes are happening. Monday the Jazz (10-8) outscored the Wolves 60-44 in the paint, beat the Wolves on the boards, got to the free throw line 34 times. Utah shot 50.6 percent overall, 61.1 percent in the second half, 65 percent in the decisive fourth quarter.
Down five entering the fourth quarter, Thibodeau again went with Tyus Jones at the point for the final 12 minutes. With Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine leading the way, the Wolves tied the game twice, then took an 83-82 lead on Jones’ three-pointer with 7:47 left.
The Jazz calmly responded with an 11-0 run to take the game over for good, finishing the fourth quarter with 38 points.
“Defense has to come every night,” said Ricky Rubio who, for the third straight game, watched the fourth quarter from the bench. Asked if that was hard for him to do, he simply said, “Yes.’’
“It was supposed to be the key for this team to take off,” Rubio said about the defense. “But it’s not, right now.’’
Which is why there was so much frustration, even after six Wolves players scored in double figures, led by LaVine’s 28, 19 points and 12 rebounds from Karl-Anthony Towns and 13 points from Andrew Wiggins.
Led by center Rudy Gobert’s 16 points and 17 rebounds, and with Gordon Hayward and George Hill each scoring 24 points, the Jazz were never really stopped. Utah made 13 of 20 fourth-quarter shots and 10 of 12 free throws down the stretch.
“We’re missing something,’’ Thibodeau said. “They scored 112 points. Fifty percent shooting. You can’t win like that. Reckless fouls, no discipline. You want to be making progress. That’s the important thing. We didn’t make progress today. That’s something that has to be corrected.’’
That is proving a difficult task for a team that keeps making the same mistakes on defense.
Afterward Towns, in a lengthy, but soft-spoken postgame interview, tried to put the blame on his shoulders, saying it was his fault, nobody else’s. “All these losses fall on my shoulders,’’ he said. “It’s something I have to fix. So far this season it’s been me. … Does it make sleeping at night hard? Yeah. I just have to do more. I have to play at a higher level, at a level where we can’t lose.’’
But it might go deeper than that.
Wiggins said the team was making the same mistakes. “The message is getting through,” he said. “But it’s different from saying something to actually doing it. Everyone is frustrated. It’s not fun to lose. We have to want to play defense.’’
And then they have to do it.
“When you’re outrebounded, you’re fouling recklessly, not protecting the basket, your weak side has no awareness of what’s going on?’’ Thibodeau said. “It’s not acceptable.’’