This has become a frustrating routine.
Again Monday the Timberwolves dug an early hole, then dug themselves out. But ultimately, another loss.
Down 19 points in the second quarter but up three entering the fourth, the Wolves faded to a 132-122 loss at Target Center to a Portland team fighting for the third spot in the Western Conference.
It all seemed so familiar.
“Feels like Groundhog Day right now,’’ interim coach Ryan Saunders said. “It does. And I’m disappointed.’’
Disappointed and frustrated. Since taking over for Tom Thibodeau, Saunders has stressed the positive, remained upbeat and shied away from strident criticism of his young team.
But Monday, some of the frustration with the team’s inconsistent defense came through. The Wolves allowed the Blazers to score 35 or more points in three of four quarters. And it began with yet another lethargic start.
“It hurts when you’re stressing competing for four quarters,’’ Saunders said. “We can’t use youth as an excuse. But you see a lot of time with young players, defense has to matter. It has to hurt when someone scores on you. We have to get to that point. We’re going to use everything we have to move towards that, so we don’t feel like this any more.’’
The Blazers (49-28) shot 54.9 percent and made 15 of 30 three-pointers while winning for the seventh time in eight games. On a night when the Wolves held Damian Lillard in relative check (15 points, 6-for-17 shooting), Evan Turner came off the bench for a triple-double, center Enes Kanter scored 20 points with 11 rebounds and Rodney Hood hit three of four three-pointers and scored 21 points.
Wolves guard Tyus Jones had a 14-point, 10-assist double-double. Andrew Wiggins scored 21 points and Gorgui Dieng came off the bench to hit seven of eight shots to score 18.
That trio scored 27 of the Wolves’ 36 points in a third-quarter rally that had Minnesota up three entering the fourth. But the Wolves faded down the stretch.
It was frustrating enough that Saunders went right up to the edge of blaming his team’s defensive woes on effort.
“I don’t know if I want to say it’s an effort thing,’’ he said. “But it’s in the realm … ’Cause really, if it matters to you, you’re going to put forth everything you have defensively.’’
In the just-concluded 1-3 homestand, Wolves opponents shot 50.5 percent, made 64 of 133 three-pointers and averaged 37.5 first-quarter points.
What’s the answer to better starts? “I don’t know,’’ Karl-Anthony Towns said. “I don’t know. If I knew, I would fix it. I’m trying to find out myself.’’
What’s clear is that everyone is frustrated, from Saunders on down.
“He’s definitely frustrated,’’ said Jones, the Wolves’ only plus player Monday. “And rightfully so. We have to get better on the defensive end. We showed at times we can buckle down and get stops. We do it for good stretches of the game. But we have to do it more consistently.’’
Said Wiggins: “Effort’s a part of the problem. A big part is communication, too. We have a lot of miscommunication out there that leads to easy baskets.’’
The Wolves (34-42) los their second straight game, their third in four and their eighth in 10 games. Only five games remain in the regular season, and Saunders pledged to use those to try to change his team’s direction.
“You hold Lillard to 15 points and you score 122 points and you lose,’’ he said. “So that hurts.’’