LOS ANGELES – Since Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell entered COVID-19 protocols, Timberwolves opponents have had the benefit of having the most top-tier talent on the floor.
Despite that, the Wolves stayed competitive in most of these games. Victories were still hard to come by.
As Towns and Russell near a return, perhaps as soon as Wednesday, the Wolves faced a Lakers team that featured three potential Hall of Famers in LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook.
The script was the same Sunday, fitting for Hollywood. The Wolves stuck around, even had the lead in the fourth quarter before the Lakers closed them out, winning 108-103.
"We got to move forward and try to win these games," coach Chris Finch said. "We're not here just solely to develop talent. We're trying to win these games. We just have to be better. Tonight I thought we beat ourselves."
Anthony Edwards had a rough night in scoring 18 points on 7-for-19 shooting. He shot 0-for-6 from three-point range to go with eight turnovers, including three in the final two minutes. The Wolves had 23 turnovers for the night.
Naz Reid (23 points) and Jaylen Nowell (17) gave the Wolves life throughout the game and they crashed the glass to outrebound Los Angeles 56-28. But they didn't have enough firepower to overcome 26 from James, 22 from Malik Monk and 14 from Anthony, who had a crucial four-point play to put the Lakers up five with 3 minutes, 7 seconds left.
The Wolves are a team with an already-small margin for error, and with Towns and Russell out they committed too many turnovers and missed too many threes (making only nine of 38 attempts) to pull off an upset.
Even though the Wolves are down Russell and Towns, and they are a young team, the sense of disappointment was palpable — the Wolves expect better from themselves.
"We have a chance to make the playoffs and when we hurt ourselves, we ruin our chances in a way," Reid said. "The frustration is there because we're a lot better than how we displayed."
The Wolves were up 86-82 early in the fourth but committed eight turnovers. They went scoreless for a stretch of 3:05, which allowed the Lakers enough room to come back and retake the lead, which they didn't relinquish again. Reid conceded Russell can bring a measure of poise and calm in tense moments like the fourth, but that wasn't an excuse for how the Wolves played.
"We played too fast," Reid said. "We started getting too fast and started to make hero plays and playing hero ball. Those plays definitely matter."
Edwards, in particular, seemed rushed and was pressing. Finch said it was because Edwards "fought the game all night long."
"We kept telling him he's got to use the coverage against them," Finch said. "They put two on the ball, [he] tried to dribble around it. His passing was late out of it. They were shaping him up right, he didn't want to go right enough. These are things he has to learn. When he did it, we had success."
This is part of Edwards' "growth curve," Finch said, just as the rest of the team is learning what it takes to try and win close games.
"The type of poise that we showed throughout the game, toughness, fight that we showed on this road trip so far, that's all you can ask for," guard Patrick Beverley said. "If we just keep the same intensity with the guys coming back, we're one of the best teams when we're healthy."
If only these lessons came without at a cost in the standings.