Sunday, the Timberwolves did what they have done so many times this season. They watched film of their previous game, trying to figure out what went wrong and what to do about it.
Saturday night at Target Center, the Wolves lost for the 20th time this season after leading by double digits. This time, they lost 123-117 to Sacramento, which had been 5-14 since trading star DeMarcus Cousins and entering full-blown rebuilding mode.
After practice Sunday, Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau pledged again to keep working, keep stressing what it takes to be a sound defensive team.
But time is getting short.
The Wolves’ loss, coupled with Portland’s victory over Phoenix later Saturday night, officially eliminated the Wolves from playoff contention — for the 13th consecutive season.
Now, with only seven games left in the regular season, the Wolves are hoping some progress can be made, and that it will carry over into the offseason.
“You just deal with reality,” Thibodeau said. “There is always something you can work towards. There is always something you can learn, something you can improve upon. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
They again tried to learn from Saturday. With strong defense creating turnovers, the Wolves surged to a 29-13 lead with 1:59 left in the first quarter.
And then? Trailing by 13 points, the Kings outscored the Wolves 21-11 over the first five minutes of the second quarter. In the third quarter they outscored the Wolves 36-26, scoring nine points on three-pointers and 20 points in the paint. By the time the game was over, the Wolves had turned in one of their worst defensive performances of the season.
“We watched today, when it went south,” Thibodeau said.
It is a recent trend.
Not long ago it appeared the Wolves had turned a defensive corner. They had the second-best defensive rating and the best overall rating in the league while going 7-3 in a 10-game stretch between Feb. 15 and March 13.
But in the nine game since they are 2-7 with a defensive rating of 118.0, easily the worst in the league.
“The thing is, you have to work at it,” Thibodeau said. “There are no shortcuts to it. So, until it becomes important to everybody, on every possession. … That’s one of the main reasons we’ve given up so many leads. You can’t pick and choose when you’re going to do it.”
A strong finish doesn’t necessarily carry over; the Wolves, under interim coach Sam Mitchell, won seven of their final 12 games and four of their final five last season.
Still, Andrew Wiggins said the way the team finishes is important.
“It has value,” he said. “You want to get better, to work on what we need to work on. It all comes from our competitive nature, wanting to win games and see if we can carry it into next season.”
For now, finding a more consistent defense has to be on top of the list, a difficult task considering the Wolves’ final seven games are crammed into 10 days.
“It’s frustrating,” Wiggins said. “You can score the ball, the team can score the ball. But the defense isn’t always there. We’ve had a lot of big leads this year, and our defense is the reason we end up losing the games.”