DENVER – The saying says you live or die by the three.
Despite their best intentions as they attempt to modernize their style of play for the NBA in the 2020s, the Timberwolves are going down night after night because their three-point shots aren’t doing the same.
Make or miss, the Wolves are going to keep hoisting away. Such is the organizational path President Gersson Rosas and coach Ryan Saunders have mapped out — except it has been veering off course on the way to the desired destination.
The Wolves lost their ninth consecutive game Friday night, 109-100 to the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. This was always going to be a tough task without center Karl-Anthony Towns, who missed his second consecutive game because of a knee injury, but the Wolves couldn’t help themselves overcome Towns’ absence by hitting their system shots from the outside.
They finished the game 10-for-42 (24%) from three-point range. This mirrored the last time they played the Nuggets, when they missed 39 three-point attempts, third most in NBA history.
As he has multiple times this season, Saunders showed his faith in this style of play is unflinching. When asked if it’s hard to maintain confidence in the Wolves’ stated direction when the bad shooting nights keep piling up, Saunders offered a firm “no” and professed his belief that this is best for the long term.
“I believe in this system,” Saunders said. “I believe in our coaching staff. I believe in our front office, and I believe that this is the best way for us for future teams. We had a number of shots that I thought were wide open shots, especially early in the first quarter. They didn’t go in. Eventually those shots will go in.”
But just when “eventually” comes is anybody’s guess. The Wolves gave a spirited effort against Denver, at least given the circumstances. Andrew Wiggins (19 points on 7-for-18 shooting) summed up their defensive effort by saying it “wasn’t horrible.” The Nuggets, led by Nikola Jokic (a triple-double with 22 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists) and Jamal Murray (28 points) did hit some difficult shots to rebuild a once-17-point lead the Wolves had cut to two in the third quarter.
But the Wolves never led, in part a product of not hitting the open threes they created.
“It’s frustrating that you put a lot of work in,” said guard Shabazz Napier, who had four points in his first start. “But I think everybody understands that when those shots go in, the game is different for us. We really predicate our game on defensive stops, running in transition and getting open threes. Half the battle is getting to the spot and having an open shot. The other battle is obviously making the shots.”
But it’s a battle they’re losing.
The only one who could hit from outside regularly was Gorgui Dieng, who finished 4 of 6 from deep for 18 points. The rest of the Wolves? It wasn’t pretty. Wiggins was 2 of 8, and it only got worse from there. Josh Okogie and Robert Covington were each 0-for-4. Rookie Jarrett Culver, returning from flu-like symptoms, was 0-for-3.
Denver started on fire, hitting 12 of its first 13 shots and building a 17-point lead. The Wolves cut into the lead in the second and third quarters, getting as close as two, but never led. Then Denver caught fire again down the stretch, hitting 7 of 10 to open the fourth.
It was firepower the Wolves couldn’t match.
“I mean, they’re good shots,” Wiggins said. “We just can’t knock them down. We practice them. We’re hitting the shots at the beginning of the year. We’re not shooting too great, but [we’ve] just got to stay with it and focus and hopefully next game they’re going to fall.”
The Wolves haven’t lost that faith yet, even if it’d be harder for others to maintain.