Salt Lake City – When anger overcomes you during a basketball game, it usually can go one of two ways. It can knock you off your game and affect you in a negative. Or you can channel it, like an artist or songwriter may use emotional pain to create a work of art.
The Wolves went in both directions Friday night, losing their cool at certain times — like when Taj Gibson got ejected in the third quarter — and flashing brilliance at other times — see Karl-Anthony Towns’ second-half performance. Ultimately, in a 106-102 loss to the Jazz a comeback from 23 down came up agonizingly short, but it may turn out to be one of the most catalyzing performances for a shorthanded Wolves team that has already been through the emotional ringer.
Consider what interim coach Ryan Saunders and Gibson, one of the team’s emotional fulcrums, said afterward.
“I’m so proud to be a part of this group, just the way they battled through adversity,” Saunders said. “It seems like we get hit with adversity every night, but the resolve of this group is something special.”
Added Gibson: “A lot of heart. We were down almost half our roster. A lot of heart. A lot of energy. We were missing guys but playing together.”
The Wolves were missing Jeff Teague, Robert Covington, Derrick Rose and Tyus Jones coming into the night. Then they lost Gibson, who blew his top at official James Williams and made an obscene gesture toward him as he exited the floor in the third quarter. Then out went Gorgui Dieng to a hip contusion.
The Wolves fell behind by 23 as Donovan Mitchell had 24 points and Rudy Gobert had 18 points, 16 rebounds for Utah. But the Wolves scraped it together using almost everyone on their bench to cut the deficit to one in the fourth quarter behind a motivated Towns, who emerged from early foul trouble to score 29 of his 33 points in the second half. Andrew Wiggins added 21 points on 8-for-26 shooting, with 11 rebounds.
“It takes a lot of pride. More than fight, it takes pride,” Towns said. “We had pride in ourselves that no matter how the game was going we had a chance to win.”
They did with under a minute to play, but Jerryd Bayless and Luol Deng missed a pair of three-pointers that would’ve given the Wolves the lead. Then down three in the final seconds, the Wolves couldn’t get a clean look to tie the game as Anthony Tolliver airballed a three. The Wolves outscored Utah 33-16 in the final quarter.
The locker room afterward was as upbeat as the Wolves have been after any loss this season. Gibson, who was expecting a fine for his gesture, was contrite when talking about his tiff with Williams and said he planned to apologize.
“He’s like a big brother,” Gibson said. “You see him every day, you have a relationship, sometimes tempers flare and you kind of lost it a little bit, but you mean well. I’ll see him again, but it was just one of those times I just lost it.”
The reason why he lost it had everything to do with the situation the Wolves are in as the fight to stay alive in the Western Conference standings.
“We were so beat up and banged up, I saw him miss a couple plays, blatant foul plays and I just lost it,” Gibson said.
His teammates held it together, and even though they came up short, it didn’t feel like a crushing loss.
“Nothing was going our way,” Wiggins said. “But we fought through it all.”