MEMPHIS – As the Timberwolves had ended a long losing streak and started to find their footing in recent games, the biggest reason could be found on the defensive end. For the 10 games before Tuesday’s against the Grizzlies at FedExForum, Minnesota had sat atop the NBA in defensive rating.
But after a 119-112 loss that saw the Grizzlies accelerating out of view as the clock wound down, here’s the question: Is what happened Tuesday an aberration or an about-face?
“You’d like to say it happens,’’ Wolves coach Ryan Saunders said. “I’m always disappointed when we lose. But I guess you’d say I’m more disappointed in the fact that we gave up 37 points in the fourth quarter. Because that’s something we’ve been able to hang our hats on.’’
Officially, Tuesday’s game included the biggest lead the Wolves have blown this season. They were up 14 after a 12-0 run in the second quarter.
But more concerning: In a game that had slowly, inexorably grown tight, the Wolves used a 10-0 run early in the fourth quarter to erase a two-point deficit and take a 94-86 lead with 8½ minutes left. After that?
Memphis ended the game shooting 13-for-19, outscoring Minnesota 33-18 and sweeping the season series 3-0 thanks to some familiar names:
Dillon Brooks, who scored 28 and finished with 85 points vs. the Wolves this season. Ja Morant, who snaked through the Wolves defense for bucket after bucket on the way to 25 points. Add in Jaren Jackson Jr., who had 21. Morant and Brooks had 10 each in the fourth quarter, Jackson 11.
Also, Memphis turned five fourth-quarter offensive rebounds into nine second-chance points.
“They made plays; give credit to them,’’ said Wolves rookie Jarrett Culver, whose career-best 24-point performance was wasted. Culver shot 14-for-22 overall, 5-for-9 on threes and scored 38 points on the two-game road trip. He was one of five Wolves in double figures Tuesday. Jeff Teague had 18, Robert Covington 17 and Andrew Wiggins 15.
“They were in a bit of a rhythm,’’ Covington said. “They were elusive. They were making plays. It’s a team that’s going to grind to the very end, and we didn’t withstand the run.’’
For much of the game, they did. The Wolves led for most of the first three quarters, losing big margins but rarely the lead.
When Teague and Culver each scored five points in that 10-0 run, with Teague putting the Wolves up eight with a finger roll, it appeared the Wolves had duplicated what they did in Cleveland Sunday.
But from that point, Brooks, Morant and Jackson combined to go 11-for-15 for 28 of the Grizzlies’ final 33 points.
“They got physical with us, on offense and defense,’’ Saunders said. “And we didn’t do a good job of coming up with defensive rebounds as well.’’
As a result, one of the two teams that came in hot stayed that way. Memphis (16-22) has won three straight and 10 of 16. The Wolves (14-22) had their brief two-game winning streak — their first since late November — end.
But they won’t have to see Brooks again this season.
“I would love to be able to,’’ Covington said. “The next time would have been a different outcome. Wish we did have one more time. But, you know, kid can play. Kid can play.’’