NEW YORK – Just as interim head coach Sam Mitchell promised in defeat a night earlier, change came to the Timberwolves on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Just not all by his own doing and not nearly enough to prevent his team’s eighth loss in its last nine games, 107-102 to the New York Knicks.
Forced to reconfigure his lineup when veteran guard Kevin Martin couldn’t play because of his sprained shooting wrist and when Kevin Garnett was rested on the second night of consecutive games, Mitchell sounded like a man more encouraged by his team’s second-half comeback than discouraged by its first-half collapse.
Trailing by 22 points just after halftime, the Wolves willed their way back to within as few as three points in the game’s final seconds, but couldn’t get any closer in a contest of two teams that fought to the bottom last season for the draft lottery’s best odds.
“This is the first time: We got out and actually ran tonight,” Mitchell said afterward. “Like I told our guys after the game, if we play with that energy, with that kind of toughness the rest of the season, then it will be a fun season for us the rest of the way.”
The forced absence of Martin and Garnett voided what Mitchell called “whatever thoughts and dreams” he had for lineup changes Wednesday to a team that started the season 8-8 primarily because of its defense then went on a losing slide while adjusted his starters in search of more offense.
Instead, he placed centers Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns besides each other to replace Garnett at power forward, moved Andrew Wiggins from small forward back to shooting guard to replace Martin and re-inserted Tayshaun Prince as a starter, where he had been during the Wolves’ competitive start to the season.
None of it stopped the Wolves from falling behind in a big way again. The modified starting lineup helped keep the game tied early in the second quarter. That’s when the Knicks closed the first half on a 26-6 run during which Mitchell had a mix of starters and reserves on the floor.
Not even Towns’ 25-point, 10-rebound double-double in his return home to the New York City area could bring the Wolves back from a deficit simply too big to erase after the Knicks outscored the visitors 33-14 in the second quarter.
“We just have to do a better job,” Towns said after he faced for the first time Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis in a matchup of last summer draft’s No. 1 and 4 picks. “We keep letting games slip away. Sooner or later, there are not going to be any more games to slip away. We’ll be home. So we have to fix it.”
Nor could starting point guard Ricky Rubio’s flirting with a quadruple-double on a night he had nine points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds and eight steals.
Rubio called the Wolves’ first-half performance “playing too cool” and said their 62-47 second half is the team they can and should be.
“When you see how we played the second half, it’s more the way we want to play: Up and down, with guys who can run and athletic,” Rubio said. “We just want to push the ball. Sometimes it’s easier when you’re down by 20. There’s nothing else to do but play aggressive…We have to stop blaming that we are too young. This team can win games. But we’ve got to believe and stop thinking we are too young today.”