With the score tied at 105 and 2 minutes, 37 seconds remaining Wednesday night, Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders opted to foul Spurs center and career 51% free-throw shooter Jakob Poeltl.
Everything about what led up to that decision and what happened in its immediate aftermath explained why the Wolves blew a 16-point fourth-quarter lead and eventually lost to the Spurs 111-108 in San Antonio.
"We stopped doing the things that got us the lead," Saunders said. "That's been a theme in some of these losses."
Ball movement stagnated, defense relaxed and the Wolves were helpless to stop a fourth-quarter snowball from turning into an avalanche of mistakes, both mental and physical, both from young and experienced players.
"We've just got to get all together and on the same page," guard Ricky Rubio said. "And when things are going wrong, it just shows the true colors of everybody, and we don't know exactly how to play down the stretch."
Case in point was Poeltl's trip to the line, which came after the Wolves had blown the lead thanks to a stretch of 6 minutes, 21 seconds in which they scored only two points. San Antonio flipped a 97-81 Wolves lead early in the fourth into a 101-99 Spurs lead with 4:16 left, a 20-2 burst. It should have never gotten to this point, where the Wolves were intentionally sending a bad free-throw shooter to the line.
But the offense settled for bad shots, couldn't finish around the basket thanks in part to Poeltl's rim protection and nobody aside from Malik Beasley (29 points) could hit an outside shot in the second half. Anthony Edwards (14 points) didn't get a shot in the fourth quarter while Beasley barely got any as D'Angelo Russell (20 points) tried to take over late, but he came up empty, including on a potential tying three-pointer on the Wolves' final possession.
"I feel like throughout the game I'm being less aggressive, trying to get guys involved, get guys confidence and a rhythm going for them," Russell said. "Toward the end of the game I try to be more aggressive, so win or lose, I'll take that. I'll take that fault win or lose with me being aggressive at the end of the game."
But again, the Wolves didn't have to be in this predicament. Saunders tried to manufacture an empty Spurs possession late by sending Poeltl to the line, a problem in and of itself.
"When you're doing that, one, it's because you're not getting stops," Saunders said. "We weren't getting stops at the time."
They didn't get one then, either. Poeltl hit the first and missed the second, which wouldn't have been a terrible outcome for the Wolves — had they secured the rebound.
But they didn't — in a situation where they should have had the ball.
"We get the rebound, we score, we talk about a different ballgame," said Rubio, who had eight points and seven assists.
Instead, DeMar DeRozan got the rebound and hit a jumper to put the Spurs up 108-105. The Wolves didn't tie or take the lead the rest of the way. DeRozan represented another theme of the night, as he filleted the Wolves defense for 16 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter to help the Spurs compensate for the absence of LaMarcus Aldridge (sore hip).
With Aldridge out, it should have been easier for the Wolves to limit DeRozan. But they didn't. Russell let out an expletive when saying the same old problems were creeping up on the Wolves on defense.
"Miscommunication," Russell said. "But I mean that's a broad answer to answer all those questions is miscommunication defensively. I think it's as simple as that."
But a hard way to lose.
The Star Tribune did not travel for this game. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews after the game.