Saturday night, after another late-game collapse had led to the Timberwolves’ fourth straight loss, coach Tom Thibodeau said he knew what had gone wrong. But, in the locker room, the players didn’t seem so certain.
For the 12th time this season the Wolves lost a double-digit lead and lost a game. Minnesota was up 11 after three quarters against a good Utah team that was finally at full strength. After Karl-Anthony Towns made one of two free throws with 3:35 left in the game, the Wolves still led by nine.
But Minnesota didn’t score again, and Utah scored at least two points on every subsequent possession, finishing the game on an 11-0 run that dropped the Wolves to 11-26 overall, 5-15 in “crunch time” games, defined as games within five points with 5 minutes to go, and 0-12 in games decided by four points or less.
Saturday’s demise was caused by problems on both ends. The Wolves went 0-for-8 with two turnovers down the stretch. The Jazz went 4-for-5 in that same stretch, getting the first seven points of that 11-0 run from Derrick Favors, two free throws from George Hill and Rudy Gobert’s tip-in of Favors’ miss with 27.5 seconds left that put Utah up for good.
After the game Thibodeau recited a familiar list of problems, though perhaps he betrayed a bit more frustration than usual. Thibodeau said the Wolves don’t understand the difference of the intensity in the fourth quarter. The need for discipline, on offense to move the ball and on defense not to gamble, reach or, as he said, “go rogue.”
In the locker room, the players seemed less clear about what the problem was.
“I don’t know,” Towns said. “We tried to execute as best as possible. They hit great shots, too. I don’t know what else to say.”
Ricky Rubio dismissed the idea that youth was the problem, but admitted that, having been through this scenario so many times, it was hard not to let the past haunt them when things get tough late in games.
“Every game is different,” he said. “But it’s true that, when you’re losing that many games at the end, the hoop gets smaller. We have talent on this team. We have a lot of guys who can score. And we have to find a way.”
Said Zach LaVine: “You never have negative thoughts in a game. But, when it gets to the point where it’s tied or you’re down, you look up and you say, ‘I don’t even know how it got to this point. We were up just a little bit ago.’ “
LaVine said the team needed a “change of mind,” that the Wolves needed to stop relaxing with a lead.
“We have to get more of a dog mentality,” he said. “Right now we really don’t have it.”
Towns said a couple wins, maybe a short streak, might get the team going.
Thibodeau? He was asked if the team was fighting him or themselves down the stretch Saturday.
“Good question,” he said. “The thing we have to understand is we have to be disciplined, and we have to be connected, and we have to be tied together. You can’t go rogue in the fourth quarter. You can’t make it up defensively, and you can’t make it up offensively.”
Thibodeau pledged to keep “banging away at it.” But is he worried that his team might be negatively impacted by his intense, vocal coaching style?
“You can look for all the excuses you want,” he said. “We have to get the job done. That’s what we have to do. So, you can say this, say that, whatever. We have to do our job.”