MILWAUKEE – If ever there was a losing locker room that felt like a winner, it was the Timberwolves’ room after their 106-104 loss to the Bucks on Wednesday night.
Plenty of laughter emanated from the room. Players joked with Jarrett Culver about picking up the tab for the technical foul he earned after a dunk and subsequent taunt of Milwaukee’s Robin Lopez in the fourth quarter, a play that, despite the technical, energized the entire team, including coach Ryan Saunders.
It exemplified the kind of fight the Wolves had even though they were down six main contributors, including their two best players in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
It didn’t matter how many players were out. The Wolves were still going to take it to the Bucks and dunk on them if they could, and they were just a few plays away from pulling off a stunning upset.
“There’s a lot of heart in that locker room,” Saunders said. “There’s a lot of potential in that locker room, too. … You get excited about what can be with some of these guys. You have teenagers out there. You have rookies, guys that just got off the plane from Iowa, guys who haven’t been around much — playing the fourth quarter against arguably the best team in the league right now.”
Those “teenagers” played a big hand in nearly knocking off the 31-5 Bucks. At one point in the fourth quarter, Saunders deployed a lineup of Culver, Naz Reid, Kelan Martin, Jaylen Nowell and Keita Bates-Diop. Four rookies and a second-year player against one of the league’s title contenders, and they hung around, keeping the Wolves within a few possessions through crunch time.
The Wolves trailed by two and had the ball with 13.9 seconds left, but at the end of a broken possession in which they were trying to get Shabazz Napier or Robert Covington open, they could manage only a 19-foot shot from Gorgui Dieng that missed.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had 32 points and 17 rebounds for Milwaukee, while Napier led seven Wolves in double figures with 22 points.
It was a loss, but not one the Wolves were taking all that hard.
“It gives everybody confidence,” Napier said. Sometimes you need your role players to have confidence so that when KAT and Wiggs need a big shot from somebody when they pass it up, [they are] going to make the shot. … It’s all about your teammates exploring themselves in opportunities when KAT and Wiggs are not playing.”
Culver did a little exploring with the thunderous dunk over Lopez and said he spoke a little “something” to Lopez after at the 9:38 mark of the fourth and the Wolves down 83-81.
“I kind of taunted after I dunked it,” said Culver, who had 10 points. “I just play with emotion and passion, that’s just how I play. I’m not going to change, that’s just who I am. At the end of the day, I can’t control how people react.”
His teammates and coach reacted quite favorably.
“I love it. Just love it. Love it. That’s … I loved it,” an almost speechless Saunders said when asked if the technical bothered him.
It didn’t bother his teammates.
“Insane, man. Insane … ” Napier said. “He definitely jumped really high. I guess you could say he earned that tech. It was amazing to see. Sometimes you earn your techs, I felt like he earned that one. He jumped so high on that one.”
Added Martin: “It was a nasty dunk. I was crazy. I didn’t know what to do when he dunked.”