The sugar high wore off and reality returned for the Timberwolves on Friday night. A chance to continue a fun, feel-good vibe fell by the wayside with a performance that looked awfully familiar. Too familiar.
Poor shooting early, leaky defense late and head-scratching execution in the final minute added up to a bad home loss and the first defeat on Ryan Saunders’ head coaching résumé.
The other shoe dropped in a 119-115 loss to a Dallas Mavericks team that came to town with the worst road record in the NBA’s Western Conference.
“We just didn’t play with an edge all game,” Karl-Anthony Towns said.
That acknowledgement would be disappointing under any circumstance but especially so in this case, given everything that has transpired in the past week.
A Target Center sellout crowd was revved up for Saunders’ home debut as interim coach, fresh off a euphoric win in Oklahoma City in the first game after a coaching change.
A pregame video showed highlights of Saunders’ first win, including the water soaking he received from his players in the locker room celebration. Saunders drew an ovation during introductions that rivaled Towns’ in decibel level. Right before tipoff, a taped message from Kevin Garnett offering his congratulations played on the videoboard.
The boisterous reaction from fans elicited a smile from the 32-year-old coach who Towns described as “Minnesota’s finest.”
Then the game started and the Wolves looked anything but fine as they clanked shot after shot. Saunders probably felt helpless watching his team cough away chances in the final minute.
Josh Okogie had a turnover and Dario Saric and Derrick Rose turned down open three-pointers in the final 30 seconds. Saric looked especially gun-shy at the moment of truth.
“[Saunders] did an absolute amazing job,” Towns said. “Got to give a lot of credit to him. He made a lot of great moves. This loss is on us as players. We didn’t come out and execute the way we needed to.”
The outcome served as a reminder that, as great as things looked in Oklahoma City, the Wolves remain a team filled with flaws, and nobody knows whether the team will show vast improvement under Saunders’ leadership.
That’s certainly the hope within the organization. The respect and admiration for Saunders feels genuine.
Wolves players aren’t going to sling insults at former coach Tom Thibodeau publicly, but their comments about Saunders require little effort to decipher. Almost in unison, they applaud his temperament and willingness to have open lines of communication and accept player feedback.
“He knows how much I care about him, not only as a coach but as a person,” said Derrick Rose in a notable compliment since he was a Thibodeau loyalist. “If anything I just tell him to be himself. Players will be able tell if he’s not being himself. We all respect him. That’s one thing that he has. He has our respect. That’s huge for a coach.”
Saunders has their respect. Now he needs them to play better and with more consistency. That’s how this second half will be evaluated and whether Saunders gets to keep the job.
Game 1 was promising. Game 2 was a dud.
“We’ve got to bring more energy for ourselves,” Tyus Jones said.
Execution seemed to be a bigger issue. On both ends. The Wolves shot only 36 percent from the field in the first half to fall behind by 14 points. The defense allowed too many open shots in the second half. And their decision-making in the final minute was a mess.
Saunders is trying to implement changes that he thinks fit his personnel better. He’s tinkering with lineup combinations and he wants to play at a faster pace. There likely will be an adjustment to changes in roles and style of play, but maybe a meaningful payoff will come at some point.
It’s hard to spin Friday’s loss as anything but a letdown though. The coaching change brought new energy and excitement, but problem areas won’t magically disappear.