There was a smattering of applause as the clock ran out on the Timberwolves’ 124-117 loss to the Clippers.
Those who didn’t leave in the final minutes — or who left when the Clippers were up by as many as 27 in the third quarter — were appreciative that the Wolves didn’t completely waste their Friday night at Target Center, especially since they had to wait until 8:45 p.m. for tipoff.
A mediocre three quarters gave way to a furious rally in the fourth quarter, when the Wolves outscored Los Angeles 36-22 and got as close as four, but no more.
If the Wolves hadn’t let Kawhi Leonard and Paul George shred them through three-plus quarters, maybe they wouldn’t have ended up with their seventh loss in a row.
The fourth quarter was encouraging. The Wolves didn’t fold on national TV amid the most trying stretch of their season, forcing nine turnovers in the process with Robert Covington playing some of his best defensive ball of the season.
“We’re disappointed from the loss, but we fought back …” Andrew Wiggins said. “We went out swinging. The end result didn’t end how we wanted it to end, but there were some positives we can take from it.”
But the rally begs the question — where was this the past two weeks?
Leonard and George were dominant through three quarters, combining for 88 points. George scored 46 and Leonard 42, going 19-for-19 from the free-throw line. Two of those free throws came with the Wolves within four after Leonard rebounded his own shot with 40.2 seconds remaining.
Leonard allowed the Clippers to breathe with those free throws, securing a victory that once seemed easy. With Los Angeles up 105-84 and 11 minutes, 25 seconds to play, the Wolves went on a 22-6 run over the next 6:30 to pull within 111-106. But then Clippers clamped down.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Wiggins led the last-ditch effort, scoring 39 and 34 points respectively, with Towns doing his damage after getting into foul trouble in the third.
“We made some plays,” said Towns, who gave the crowd a scare when he clutched his left knee after a hard foul by Montrezl Harrell, only to come back to attempt his free throws. “We obviously waited too long to make those plays, but it’s great we did what we did in the fourth quarter but for me personally, moral victories don’t pay the bills. We got to get the real ones.”
Those have proven elusive as of late, for a variety of reasons, but the main culprit has been the defense, which looked dreary again for three quarters, then suddenly revelatory. In the fourth quarter, the Wolves looked like they had found something they had lost on that end of the floor.
“You could tell that our spirits was down, period, from the way the game was going,” Covington said. “Once we decided to change that up and we got back into the game, you started to see a different mindset from everyone and you saw a different vibe and energy.”
So even though the night ended in a loss, at least it didn’t end in a soul-crushing sort of way that it seemed like it might. Instead, it ended with a Wolves locker room that was part regretful and hopeful as it heads into four days off.
“We needed it just to remind ourselves that we put ourselves in good position at the beginning of the year,” Wiggins said. “We worked hard for it. We can do the things we got to do. We’ve just got to stay consistent with it.”
There’s the rub. Consistency. That means not allowing Leonard to get his own rebound as the Wolves were trying to come all the way back. It means better ball movement on offense, like was happening late with Towns and Wiggins going toe to toe with Leonard and George.
“When we play the right way,” coach Ryan Saunders said, “I’d like to think it works.”
Now to make it work all the time.