DENVER – Given the circumstances, nothing all that surprising happened in the Timberwolves’ 128-116 loss to the Nuggets on Sunday.
The Wolves had only nine players available and were without their top two with D’Angelo Russell (planned rest) and Karl-Anthony Towns (fractured left wrist) both out. The remaining Wolves hung around most of the game thanks to a decent three quarters offensively and even got within six points in the fourth, before Denver overwhelmed its undermanned opponent to take a 22-point lead and cruised from there.
Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap dominated, with Millsap scoring 25 points and Jokic 24 as they combined to shoot 20-for-25 from the field. Kelan Martin scored a career-high 21 points for the Wolves while Jordan McLaughlin added 15 points and 10 assists.
For the Wolves, this was another exercise in accentuating the positive, despite a 17th loss in 18 games.
But the 2019-20 Wolves are really two different units since remaking the roster before the trade deadline. This latest iteration is still figuring out how to play with each other.
“Hey, there’s going to be difficult times,” coach Ryan Saunders said. “There always are. When you’re trying to work towards something good and push through something, the difficult times you have to endure. You endure those together.”
One key component of that is figuring out how to hold each other accountable. Saunders said at halftime and postgame he let the players talk among themselves, a necessary building block for a team trying to jell. It’s not a surprise that Saunders said the oldest member of the youngest team in the NBA, 33-year-old James Johnson, is an active voice in these discussions.
“Coach Ryan can say as much as he wants and rah-rah us as much as he wants,” said Johnson, who had 13 points. “But at the end of the day, it’s guys that are going out there fighting. It’s just corrective criticism. That goes for everybody. Anybody can come up to me, tell me what they see. I go up to everybody else.”
Johnson mentioned that Towns and Russell have done a “marvelous” job with that, and added that he sees a team of “winners” despite this new crew dropping four of its five games together.
“This is part of the game — the film, the mistakes,” Johnson said. “Being able to take criticism during the worst part of the game and boxing that in and not letting it happen again. Things where something happens, you check that box off and don’t let it happen again. …
“We don’t got to wait for the coaches. We’ve been having some extremely great film sessions, and I think Ryan has been kind of giving it to us, not giving us the keys yet, but at the same time, putting it upon ourselves.”
That goes for everyone on the roster, including those who have spent most of their time in the G League.
“It just all leads to all of us doing our own job, holding each other accountable even though we’re a young team,” said center Naz Reid, who had 13 points. “We’re all mature to the point where we know if someone is telling us to do something, to do it. There’s two sides of communication.”
One of the bright spots Sunday was the play of G Leaguers Martin and McLaughlin. Players who spent significant time at Iowa have looked more and more comfortable in the NBA as the season has gone on.
“It’s not like we’re yelling at each other; we’re teaching each other,” McLaughlin said. “We’re figuring out a new system, so we’re telling guys different looks throughout the game and halftime and postgame. We’re going to keep building.”
Some days there will be more progress than others, and there may be more losses than wins. But the Wolves want to build habits that will turn them into winners. Getting better at communicating with each other is a start.
“That’s what you want to see,” Saunders said. “Being the youngest team in the league, you have guys that are seeing that’s a norm.”