The Timberwolves stepped back toward normalcy Saturday with Kevin Garnett's second game back at Target Center, an evening that wasn't normal in the least.
For starters, a second consecutive sellout crowd arrived early to bid its welcome back for the greatest player who ever wore a Wolves uniform, but it never got to say a proper good-night to him after Garnett was ejected in the third quarter of a 101-97 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Like Elvis before him, Garnett had left the building when his teammates at first stumbled without him, then gathered themselves to push the Grizzlies to the final 10 seconds before Kevin Martin's potential tying three-pointer with six seconds left missed.
Before that, Martin had made three fourth-quarter threes to keep his team in step with the Grizzlies, an opponent Flip Saunders predicts will reach the NBA Finals but also one that lost in its last trip to Target Center on Feb. 6. Saturday night's game completed a stretch where Memphis played five games in seven nights.
Garnett's ejection by referee Bennett Salvatore sucked the collective breath out of a capacity Saturday crowd — announced at 19,356 fans, 500 fewer than Garnett's emotional Wednesday return, when the team sold standing-room tickets. The ejection appeared to do the same for the Wolves for a time, before they got it back together and twice led by five points early in the fourth quarter and by 88-87 with 4 minutes, 54 seconds left.
The Wolves rallied not only without Garnett, but also without center Nikola Pekovic, who played just two minutes after halftime because of that ankle that has caused him more pain recently. Saunders rode point guard Ricky Rubio for the entire second half, mixed and matched lineups featuring newcomers Adreian Payne and Gary Neal down the stretch and employed a zone defense with players who hadn't practiced it together.
"We just fought," said Rubio, whose team forced 24 Memphis turnovers.
For parts of the fourth quarter, Saunders asked rookie Andrew Wiggins to defend bruising Memphis power forward Zach Randolph, with reasonable results.
All of it was an attempt to compensate in good part for Garnett, who at age 38 already has supplied a defensive presence the Wolves apparently rely on — even though he's only played a game and a half with them.
"We were playing some funky lineups, and I felt like an air traffic controller, directing guys to play in spots they never played before," Saunders said. "But I went to the bench and said, 'Are you having fun yet,' because it was fun. … That's a good team. We played them three times and had three great games and we had a chance to win every one in the last minute. I can't fault our guys for how hard we played against them."
Memphis ultimately prevailed because underrated point guard Mike Conley answered Martin's shooting with an important three of his own and because Randolph and All-Star center Marc Gasol asserted themselves when the game was on the line.
Randolph scored five consecutive fourth-quarter points after he scored two all night before then. Gasol followed by scoring his team's next nine points on his way to 27 points and 11 rebounds.
By then, Garnett had already showered and left the arena. He was ejected for getting his second technical foul of the game. The first came in the second quarter. The second came when he spiked the ball to the floor, apparently in disgust at himself for collecting a personal foul, and the ball bounded high over the basket.
Salvatore immediately whistled the technical and Garnett was gone, cheered by the crowd as he left after they booed Salvatore lustily. Saunders said Salvatore told him the technical was automatic because of Garnett's actions. After the game, Saunders sought out a rule book he brought to his postgame news conference in which he said Garnett needed to show "resentment" to the officials for their call.
"My point is, he wasn't disagreeing with the call," said Saunders, who waited for Salvatore after the game for a more complete explanation. "When it was said that it's an automatic technical foul, it's not. By the rulebook, which I have right here, it's not. … It's a judgment, it went the other way."