With 8 minutes, 33 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of their game against the Kings on Jan. 27, the Timberwolves led 105-84 after a three-point play from Karl-Anthony Towns. Their win probability, according to ESPN, was 99.9%. It seemed even closer to a sure thing than that.
It was still at 99.9% even after the Kings had cut it to 12 with 1:18 to play on a pair of De’Aaron Fox free throws.
But what transpired that night — which was only a few months ago — hadn’t happened in NBA history, at least recent NBA history. The Kings completed the comeback from what was once a 27-point deficit in the third quarter to win in overtime 133-129.
According to ESPN, since 1996-97 (the first year of play-by-play data), NBA teams had been 0-8,378 when trailing by 17 or more in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. The Wolves had a 17-point lead after Andrew Wiggins hit a three with 2:49 to play.
But minutes later that record became 1-8,378.
It had already been an atypical night at Target Center. This was the first game the Wolves played following the death of Kobe Bryant, and that morning at shootaround players spoke about the impact Bryant had on them. The Kings and Wolves began the game with a tribute that most of the NBA employed to honor Bryant — the Wolves took an eight-second violation and the Kings a 24-second violation in honor of Bryant’s two jersey numbers.
Wiggins even placed the ball at the foul line where Bryant passed Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list.
The game seemed to be an easy win for the Wolves, and the team was primed to snap a nine-game losing streak. Instead it turned into the ugliest loss for a trying season.
Buddy Hield caught fire from three-point range in the fourth quarter. He scored 20 points, including five threes, in the fourth. He would finish with 42 points.
If Hield misses even one of those shots, the game likely turns into a close Wolves win — even after coach Ryan Saunders emptied his bench and pulled his starters late — only to reinsert them later as things tightened up.
Despite Hield’s incredible performance, the Wolves would’ve had the game if they had just executed a simple rebound off a missed free throw from Fox. With the Wolves up 119-116 with 4.7 seconds remaining, Wiggins fouled Fox. Fox hit the first and Saunders put every tall player he had on the floor with Fox prepared to intentionally miss the second.
What happened next was jaw-dropping. Fox fired the ball off the front of the rim, got the rebound himself without being called for a lane violation — the NBA confirmed one should have been called — and got an easy layup with no resistance from the Wolves. Tie game, and the air left Target Center. The Wolves never had a prayer in overtime. They were too demoralized.
“As low as you can get,” guard Shabazz Napier said. “This is it.”
Napier went back on the floor following the game and took 100 free throws after missing a pair in the final minute that would’ve helped put the game away in regulation.
“As a point guard, you’re not supposed to miss free throws,” Napier said.
Barely a week later there weren’t many people left on the team who were there for that collapse.
Several players, including Napier, Wiggins, Robert Covington and Gorgui Dieng, who had significant minutes that night were sent to other locations in multiple trades and President Gersson Rosas shook up the roster and assembled a team he felt fit more of the mold he envisions for the franchise.
The Kings game wasn’t the catalyst for those moves — Rosas had been planning to reshape the roster even after signing everybody who was on the team at the beginning of the season — but it was one of the most glaring instances that showed there needed to be major changes.