The Timberwolves were already down 10 points to Orlando, working their way through another listless game against a less-than-stellar opponent, when a huge fight broke out in front of the Magic bench with 1:32 left in the third quarter Friday night at Target Center.
Until that doozie, this game was a dozer.
A fight that started between the Wolves' Austin Rivers and Orlando's Mo Bamba — who was on the bench at the time — sparked a scrum that, after review, ended with the ejection of Rivers, Jaden McDaniels and Taurean Prince for the Wolves, and Bamba and former Minnesota high school star Jalen Suggs for Orlando. It changed the intensity of the game but not the direction in Orlando's 127-120 victory.
The reverberations promise to linger; there will no doubt be fines and suspensions and Wolves coach Chris Finch will have to figure out how to navigate that without three wings who are in his rotation.
Here's what happened from Rivers' point of view:
He said Bamba had been talking trash to him for a while. It started after he missed a three-pointer and continued. Rivers wouldn't get into what was said, but he clearly didn't like it.
"He proceeded to talk,'' Rivers said. "So that next possession, when I was down there I just said, pretty much, 'Keep it respectful, Bro.' I'm not trying to portray myself as a wanna-be tough guy. That's not my MO. But for anyone who knows me, I'm not going to let somebody disrespect me or talk crazy. I just feel back I got thrown out of the game. I felt I let my team down.''
Rivers got into Bamba. Bamba got up off the bench and took a swing at Rivers but missed. Then, according to Rivers, both after the game and on Instagram later, he went ''one on five.'' On Instagram, Rivers wrote: "U needed ur teammates otherwise U would have been [choked] out.''
Then Suggs grabbed Rivers by the neck, which Rivers said bothered him the most. The two tussled as Suggs threw Rivers to the court. Then it was on. McDaniels was tossed for pushing Bamba in the back. Prince might have been trying to break it up, but he was tossed, too.
Rivers said the bad feelings spread into the tunnel between the two locker rooms.
Both coaches said they didn't see the initial encounter. Finch said he watched the tape and called having a bench player throw a punch "one of the most egregious things you can do in the league right now.'' He was not happy that his team was punished more severely than the Magic. Orlando coach Jamahl Mosely said he'd talk to his two players once the Magic got ''out of here.''
It was an inflection point. Orlando finished the third quarter 7-2 to go up 15, then opened the fourth 12-5 to go up 22 on Bol Bol's dunk with 8:52 left.
With D'Angelo Russell scoring 15 fourth-quarter points, the Wolves charged, getting as close as six with 20.2 seconds left.
But by then, the damage was done.
"We got some stops, we raced it up and made some threes,'' Finch said. "But the effort wasn't there where we needed it to be all game.''
The Magic shot 52.9% overall and made 12 of 23 three-point shots. Orlando turned 20 Wolves turnovers into 26 points. Russell finished with 29 points, Anthony Edwards 19 and Luka Garza 17. Seven players scored in double figures for Orlando, four off the bench.
"I don't think our approach was wrong, I think our execution was soft,'' Finch said.
Now the Wolves will have to figure out how to play without McDaniels, Rivers and Prince.
Rivers? He said he doesn't know Bamba, that he has nothing against Orlando, which is where Rivers lives.
"I'm not mad at Mo Bamba,'' he said. "Stuff happens, bro. he's a man, I'm a man. Emotions get high. I wish him nothing but the best of luck.''