All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns remains injured and fellow max-salary teammate Andrew Wiggins was too ill to report for work Saturday. So the Timberwolves played on without either and it showed in a 94-88 loss to Cleveland that was their 12th in their past 13 games.
The Wolves scored the game’s first basket, but didn’t lead again until Shabazz Napier’s shot from the lane with 6:43 remaining gave them a fleeting 78-77 lead.
It didn’t last long, not on a night when the Wolves missed 60 shots from the field and veteran Robert Covington was the only Wolves starter who reached double digits.
Not when Jeff Teague’s 18 points off the bench and rookie forward Kelan Martin’s 17 points in his third game in two leagues over three consecutive nights were the most the Wolves could do.
And not even when nine Wolves players had a steal each and the Cavaliers committed 29 turnovers — tied for most in the NBA this season .
“It’s going to look different when you don’t have your two best players,” Wolves coach Ryan Saunders said. “That’s normal. When you’re missing two big pieces like that, you need guys to step up. It’s not like those guys are out, so we completely scrap the system. That’s not what I’m about. That’s not what we’re about.”
The Wolves played without Towns and Wiggins while Cleveland did the same without veteran star Kevin Love, who watched from the arena where he played for six seasons. Love scored 30 points in Friday’s loss at Boston.
Towns has missed six consecutive games because of a sprained left knee, and the Wolves’ only victory in those six was Thursday’s double-overtime victory at Sacramento, which ended an 11-game losing streak.
“We were able to get a win at Sacramento, but it wasn’t pretty,” Saunders said. “Our defense carried us there. Tonight, once again it wasn’t pretty.”
Without Towns and Wiggins scoring for themselves and making plays for others, the Wolves attempted 93 shots and made just 33 of them.
“We didn’t knock down a lot of shots,” Covington said. “We left a lot of points on the board, finishing at the rim and stuff. The game was there for us to take.”
Covington simply said “absolutely” when asked if his team would win any other night when it had 17 steals and the opponent had 29 turnovers.
But Saunders considered his team’s fast-break points just as telling.
“We had 15,” he said. “When you turn a team over and force 29 turnovers, you should be able to get out in the open court 29 times.”
Cleveland answered Napier’s go-ahead basket midway through the fourth quarter by scoring the next four points.
Martin, who played five minutes Thursday in Sacramento, 32 for the Wolves’ Iowa G-League team Friday and nearly 30 Saturday, hit two free throws to bring the Wolves within 81-80 with 4:12 left.
But Cavaliers rookie Darius Garland scored the next five points, and Cleveland led 86-80 with 2:30 left.
Garland’s first response was a three-point shot, the second a step-back shot from right near the three-point line. The point guard was coveted by the Wolves in last summer’s draft but was plucked one pick before them by the Cavs.
Garland’s scoring helped give the Cavaliers some separation and helped them win for the fourth time in five games after they started the season 5-19 under new coach John Beinlein, an NBA rookie at age 66.