MEMPHIS – It would have been easy for the Timberwolves to rail against the officials in Tuesday’s 108-106 loss to the Grizzlies.
With 0.1 seconds remaining and the score tied, they called a loose-ball foul on Wolves rookie Josh Okogie for pushing Memphis guard Justin Holiday. At first there was incredulity. Interim coach Ryan Saunders wanted to know how they could make that call with that little time left. Okogie also wondered what was happening.
“I couldn’t believe they called it,” Okogie said. “There’s a lot of times, even sometimes when there is a foul, usually the refs don’t like to decide the game with a foul. But I was surprised.”
But after Holiday sank both free throws in an anticlimactic end to the game, the sobering reality set in as the Wolves were packing for Orlando: It never should have gotten to that point.
Not on a night when Marc Gasol sat out amid reports Memphis is close to dealing him out of town. Not on a night when he was one of eight players listed as out on the Grizzlies’ injury report, doubling the four who were out for the Wolves. And not a night that the Wolves really could have used a victory to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
“The game wasn’t won or lost on the last play,” Saunders said.
It came after the Wolves had tied the score on two free throws from Karl-Anthony Towns, who scored those last two of his game-high 26 points with 15.7 seconds to go. After Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (25 points, nine assists) missed a three-point attempt — and it appeared Conley pushed off Anthony Tolliver to create space — the long rebound went to Holiday, who fell over as he battled Okogie for the ball.
“Nobody really had possession and we both went down on the ground,” Okogie said. “Who fouled who, I don’t know.”
Towns, however, was convinced officials made “the right call.”
“Got to get the rebound …” Towns said. “If we get the rebound, possibly we get the call.”
Towns wasn’t referring to Okogie individually but the team as a whole, a team that didn’t look whole in the first quarter. Instead of the Wolves pounding on the undermanned Grizzlies, it was Memphis that came out with intensity, grabbing a 19-point first-quarter lead the Wolves only erased when Towns hit those tying free throws.
“They came out like young players hungry to prove a point,” Towns said. “We came out like old vets that were thinking that no matter what, after 48 minutes, we were coming out with a win. We’re not at that kind of level to be expecting that from us.”
Dario Saric’s best game in a Wolves uniform — a season-high 22 points in 33 minutes — stabilized the score and allowed the Wolves to chip away.
“Played his best game of the year,” Towns said. “Sad enough we had to waste it.”
Then Luol Deng continued his resurgence, scoring 18 points off the bench on 8-for-10 shooting to keep the Wolves close in the second half.
Tantalizingly close, until that final foul sealed another close loss for a team burdened with too many of them.
“I’m not caught up on that play too much,” Deng said. “I think there’s a lot of stuff we could’ve done within the game for it not to be there.”
Added Saunders: “The game was won or lost in the first 47 minutes and 59 seconds, too.”
But it didn’t make that last second any less heartbreaking.