The Timberwolves drew a sellout crowd of nearly 19,000 for the home opener last Friday and survived with a 100-97 victory over tough-minded Utah. This was followed by a trip to Oklahoma City and a dramatic upset victory, 115-113, on Andrew Wiggins’ banked 30-footer (or more) at the buzzer.
These were 48 hours of the best feelings the Timberwolves have offered to the local sporting public since … OK, I can’t remember that far back.
The NBA decided to pour lukewarm water on the victory late on Monday afternoon when it issued the official report that breaks down the final minutes of close games.
This one stated that Karl-Anthony Towns had set an illegal screen to allow Wiggins to find space for the long-range winner. And it also confirmed that coach Tom Thibodeau had tried to call a timeout that the Wolves did not have, and the referees failed to notice.
We have an honorable group of athletes here. Obviously, they showed up on Tuesday night feeling guilty about the victory in OKC, and put in 48 low-energy minutes in order not to gain an unfair advantage in the early-season standings.
The Indiana Pacers were the visitors, a team that had lost star Paul George and point guard Jeff Teague, and has been written in as a non-playoff outfit in the Eastern Conference.
The attendance for the weeknight against this non-glamour opponent wasn’t bad: announced at 14,353, and looking close to that in actuality.
The first disturbing news of the evening came a half-hour before tipoff, when Jimmy Butler was scratched from the lineup because of illness. Indiana had an absence of its own in Myles Turner, the injured 6-foot-11 center and the Pacers’ best player after the departure of George.
Butler’s absence had a more damaging effect on the Wolves than did Turner’s with the Pacers, and that’s a serious understatement.
Among the big reasons Thibodeau worked hard to bring in Butler was to add a defensive commitment and a harder edge to the Wolves. We now have strong evidence of how greatly this team needs Butler for his play and his scowl.
As Butler was home coughing and wheezing, the Pacers were scoring 26 points in the game’s first 8:07. At that pace, they were going to score 150-plus points. They didn’t make it. The Pacers had to settle for a 130-107 victory.
The Wolves had managed to climb into a 61-61 tie at halftime. At that point, Indiana was 26-for-45 from the field for 57.8 percent. Coach Thibodeau got the fellas in the new, spiffy home locker room and certainly offered some defensive suggestions.
Try to guard Victor Oladipo. Pay attention to Cory Joseph behind the three-point line. Crowd Darren Collison so he can’t find an open shooter every time he handles the ball. And when rookie T.J. Leaf enters the game, he might be 6-10 but he can shoot.
The determined Wolves came charging out and eased to a 79-74 lead after 4½ minutes of the second half. They were 11-point favorites and starting to take control.
Or maybe not.
The Pacers went back to getting open shots from every square foot of the offensive zone from 25 feet and in. A Wolves miss was followed by a run-out for a basket. Worse yet, Wolves makes were followed by run-outs for baskets.
Indiana went 30-for-39 for the second half. That’s 76.9 percent. Heck, it’s only 1.7 percent below what Villanova shot when it beat Georgetown in the great upset for the 1985 NCAA title.
Of course, Villanova spaced its shots intentionally, going 22-for-28. The Pacers shot 77 percent while charging up court and shooting within seconds.
Teague left the Pacers after last season to sign a three-year, $57 million contract with the Wolves. What did he think of his former team?
“They are playing a different game; playing a lot faster,” he said. “They have some guys that can run now, and that’s what they want to do. The name of the game is spread basketball. They spread us out. They shot lights out.”
Collison, 30, had 16 assists and was 6-for-11 with 15 points as Indiana’s point guard. Teague, 29, had seven assists and was 1-for-7 for two points in 26 minutes.
“We came out flat,” Teague said. “That happens sometimes when you win a big game on the road. You come home and just expect it’s going to happen. You can’t play that way.”
He paused and added: “I was terrible and I think that trickled down.”