DENVER – As sometimes happens after close losses, the frustration and hurt emanated from Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders, even through a choppy Zoom call, as he answered his first postgame question about Denver's 45 free throw attempts in its 123-116 victory over the Wolves on Tuesday.
"Big difference," was all Saunders said, matter of factly.
Saunders gathered himself for the rest of the questions, but the disappointment remained as the Wolves dropped their fifth straight without Karl-Anthony Towns.
First, this team had to learn how to be competitive without Towns following three straight blowouts.
Now, it has to learn how to win those competitive games.
For the second straight game, the Wolves carried a small lead into the fourth quarter against Denver only to fall again after losing to the Nuggets by 15 on Sunday at Target Center.
This was the first game of the season that brought out that postgame reaction from Saunders.
"We obviously did not execute in the fourth quarter," Saunders said. "That's an issue for us right now."
On Sunday, Denver put the game out of reach with an early fourth-quarter run. Although this time the Wolves stayed within reach, their free-flowing offense began plodding as the pace of the game slowed and their sloppy execution made Denver's otherwise spotty defense seem impenetrable. The Wolves lost the connectivity and pace they had when they turned the game in their favor in the second quarter.
Nikola Jokic had 35 points, 15 rebounds and six assists for Denver. Juancho Hernangomez had his best game of the season for Minnesota with 25 points, while D'Angelo Russell shook off a slow first quarter to get 33 points and 11 assists. Jarred Vanderbilt might have played his way into the rotation as he took advantage of Naz Reid's foul trouble to post 11 points and five rebounds, and he was on the floor in crunch time.
"My mind-set was to go in there and change the tone, make us be aggressive, make us the faster-paced team," Vanderbilt said.
He did that, especially when he first entered the game in the second quarter. The Wolves went on to score 43 in the quarter and carried a 65-62 lead into the locker room.
However, those positive notes came with one glaring trouble spot for the Wolves — Ricky Rubio did not score and had just two assists in 21 minutes.
"I got to help get him in the spots where he can make decisions, make other players better in transition," Saunders said. "If we get stops, he can play faster and he forces us to play faster there."
Rubio was still on the floor in the fourth quarter as the Wolves tried to extend their small lead.
They led 100-93 with 11 minutes, 24 seconds remaining, but the Nuggets scored the next 15 points as the Wolves went 5 minutes, 18 seconds without a point.
As the pace slowed, the Wolves struggled offensively and had multiple possessions in which they chucked desperation shots at the end of the shot clock. Try as they might, the Wolves never could pull within one possession, and a Jokic layup put it out of reach, 121-110 with 1:23 to go.
"We need to slow down at times," Saunders said. "It's not with poor intentions, but guys want to do the right thing and sometimes that means especially with a younger group, you're playing fast. Too fast. Your decision-making can't catch up to what you're trying to do in terms of execution-wise. So we got to put those together."
Tuesday was the first time they even had the chance to do that late in a game without Towns. There has been incremental improvement, but that's all the Wolves have to keep them warm.