After the postgame hugs, handshakes and interviews, Karl-Anthony Towns was the last Timberwolves player on the court following his team's 114-106 season-ending playoff loss to Memphis. As the Target Center DJ played "Heartbreaker" by Mariah Carey, Towns appeared on the verge of tears. The fans who were left near the Wolves tunnel tried to console him as best they could with the last loud cheer of the spring.
Towns put his hand to his lips, then raised them to the crowd in a gesture of gratitude. Then he walked down the tunnel, closing the book on a Wolves season that was one of the most successful the franchise has seen in the past 20 years, but still one that ended with a gut punch.
"It's just how much this city and this team has given me," Towns said. "Really made me enjoy basketball again. I looked at halfcourt and I just thought about everything I've been through. I'm just appreciative of how far I've come and the guys I have in this locker room."
Any season that doesn't end in a championship is bound to end in some form of disappointment, but what was frustrating for the Wolves was they did this to themselves.
Friday's decisive Game 6 of this best-of-seven series played out like the Wolves' losses in Games 3 and 5.
They had another double-digit lead entering the fourth quarter, this time 84-74, and for the third time this series they let it go after Memphis outscored them 40-22.
"We're nothing if not consistent," a deadpan Chris Finch said.
Their offense stagnated to the point that Finch removed a struggling D'Angelo Russell in favor of the facilitator Jordan McLaughlin. It didn't matter — because the Wolves just couldn't get a stop when it mattered. Like their other comebacks, Memphis dominated the offensive glass — they grabbed rebounds on six of their 11 misses in the quarter. A glaring issue for the Wolves all 88 games cost them in the most crucial moments of their season.
"This just provides us with the foundation to keep moving forward," Finch said. "We know what this experience can do for us headed into the offseason. What we have to do better, our habits with our roster. Everything."
Three-pointers from Desmond Bane and former Wolves guard Tyus Jones fueled Memphis' final push that toppled over the Wolves in the final minutes. Bane and Dillon Brooks had 23 for Memphis while Ja Morant scored 17 on 4-for-14.
"This is a really, really good team down the hallway," Finch said. "They don't beat themselves. We don't have that in us yet."
Anthony Edwards finished with 30 points for the Wolves while Towns had 18 points on 6-for-19. Jaden McDaniels played one of the best games of his young career with 24 points while Russell finished with only seven points on 3-for-7.
"We're just not as experienced as them," Edwards said. "It happens. Every game we won besides the second game. It was just bad shots, turnovers."
Over and over.
The playoffs can expose your warts for all to see, and the Wolves received a heavy dollop of criticism nationally and locally for the way they handled themselves in this series. They are confident, but couldn't back up their bravado in the toughest moments. They are talented, but couldn't execute when games demanded precision and good decision-making.
As it related to his benching of Russell, Finch said Russell had "a hard time settling into this series."
"Every series has its own personality," Finch said. "Had we been able to move on, matchup wise, etc., who knows, maybe he could've had a great series against Golden State. That's just how it goes. That's playoff basketball."
But after the sting of defeat heals, the Wolves can look ahead to an optimistic future for the first time in a while. This team made just its second playoff appearance since 2004 and has a young core that revolves around Towns and Anthony Edwards. This playoff experience, as bad as it looked at times, should benefit them moving forward.
"I hope we are a bit angry and a bit disappointed. I hope that fuels us," Finch said. "That alone should be a positive thing. That's what being a competitor is all about."
Not much can suppress Edwards' spirit. After the game, he wasn't hanging his head, instead he was talking about how he enjoyed his first playoff experience.
"It was incredible," Edwards said. "I'm definitely sad it's over, but I'm ready to get back here next year."
Towns was more reflective and alluded to the struggles he has been through with the death of his mother Jacqueline and other family members to COVID-19.
"These guys did a lot for me coaching staff, teammates, this city, these fans. … Just extremely honored to be in this position, to be wearing this jersey, representing the city and the state," Towns said. "Just really tired as well."
There will be time to rest now.