Change comes slowly during this suffering season in which the Timberwolves find themselves.
It did not arrive much Monday with a lineup shake-up coach Flip Saunders had suggested Saturday, other than a singular move that swapped Mo Williams for Zach LaVine at starting point guard.
It did not arrive at all in the outcome delivered, not after a 110-101 loss to the Denver Nuggets at Target Center became the Wolves’ 12th consecutive defeat and 18th in 19 games.
The final margin of defeat did not accurately tell the tale of a game in which the Wolves — pushing on without Saunders and reserves Chase Budinger and Robbie Hummel, all of whom were too ill to work — scored the first seven points and still trailed by 24 before halftime.
One of the few things a crowd announced at 10,386 could cheer about was a pregame announcement declaring Andrew Wiggins Western Conference rookie of the month for a second month in a row.
Well, that and a second-half comeback that did not overcome a lopsided 47-10 difference in bench scoring.
“We started off good, we just couldn’t maintain it,” said assistant coach Sam Mitchell, who filled in for Saunders.
His team couldn’t contain Nuggets veteran Arron Afflalo, who provided Wolves youngsters Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad a lesson in how to move without the ball and score within an offense not specifically designed for you by scoring a season-high 34 points that included four three-pointers.
“They ran two plays for him,” Mitchell said. “He understands how to get shots within their offense. That’s the thing Shabazz and Andrew have to learn.”
It couldn’t counter the Nuggets’ size with J.J. Hickson’s 16 points and 11 rebounds, or the presence of Kenneth Faried, Jusuf Nurkic and Timofey Mozgov, even though second-year center Gorgui Dieng tried his best with 22 points and 12 rebounds himself.
And it had no answer for a Nuggets bench that got the 16 points from Hickson, 14 from Nurkic and 12 from Nate Robinson, while the best the Wolves reserves could do was LaVine’s mere five points.
“Think about it,” Mitchell said. “Earlier in the season, we had Shabazz, other guys coming off the bench who can score. Right now, Shabazz is in the starting lineup and it makes it tough because our bench guys now are not really scorers. They’re young and they haven’t found out what they’re going to be in the NBA yet. We just don’t have the numbers. You try to balance out your lineup, but it’s just tough right now.”
Wiggins and Muhammad found it difficult trying to shadow Afflalo, who has shot 63.3 percent (19-for-30) in his past two games after going 11-for-18 on Monday.
“I think I could have done better, a lot better,” Wiggins said. “I don’t think it was one of my best defensive performances … I can learn a lot from him: Just watch his footwork, how he moves without the ball, every shot the same for him. He always squares up. He shot ready.”
Mitchell worked his first NBA game as a head coach since December 2008. He was 3-0 lifetime — all with Toronto — at Target Center before Monday’s game, when the Wolves pulled within 10 points with 4:20 left but got no closer. Saunders met with his staff Sunday to devise a game plan, Mitchell talked with him by phone after Monday’s shootaround and the Wolves moved on for a night without him.
“That’s the least thing I’m worried about,” Dieng said about that change on the bench. “Sam’s running the same plays, so I’m not worried about that.”