DENVER – The Timberwolves lost an 18-point lead, some of their road-warrior swagger and ultimately Friday’s game, 111-108 in overtime at Denver.
Playing their second overtime game in three nights, the Wolves steamed toward their second comfortable victory at Pepsi Center in the season’s first six weeks until Nuggets veteran point guard Jameer Nelson and forward Danilo Gallinari, as well as maybe the Wolves themselves, decided otherwise.
The Wolves lost a double-digit lead and the game for the sixth time year, allowing Nelson and the Nuggets to shoot themselves back into contention with three-point shot after three-point shot: Ten of them in the second half and one in overtime.
The Wolves did so on a night when Kevin Garnett surpassed Karl Malone and became the NBA’s all-time leading defensive rebounder with 11,409 in his career and when starting point guard Ricky Rubio sat the final 5 ½ minutes after he fouled out.
“We got to learn when we have a lead we have to play smart, intelligent,” Rubio said. “Sometimes we forget.”
Afterward, Wolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell recounted halftime adjustments intended to keep the Nuggets — losers of five consecutive home games before Friday — from shooting their way back into the game.
“The thing we talked about at halftime, don’t give up three-point shots,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got to learn.”
Subbing for injured rookie starting point guard Emmanuel Mudiay in the second half, Nelson made four three-pointers in the third quarter alone and scored 18 of his 20 points after halftime while Gallinari scored nine of his team’s 11 points in overtime.
Gallinari’s three-point shot with 1:25 left in overtime gave Denver a 107-104 lead it never lost. His turnaround jumper with 6.8 seconds left created a three-point lead and ensured victory after Karl-Anthony Towns’ desperation three-point shot with less than four seconds left missed.
Afterward, Mitchell noted the Wolves didn’t execute those halftime defensive adjustments, changes intended to ensure the Nuggets wouldn’t come back the only way they really could, by making three after three.
“Carry out your assignments and do what you did in the first half,” Wolves veteran guard Kevin Martin said about Friday’s lesson supposedly learned.
Instead, Wolves players too often went underneath screens rather than challenging Denver’s shooters by going over the top. When asked if his team repeatedly made mental or physical errors in that regard, he pointed toward the locker room.
“We said we were going over the top,” Mitchell said. “That’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Nelson and Gallinari took advantage. Nelson’s four threes came in the Nuggets’ lopsided 32-22 third quarter that changed the game’s course. Gallinari made two of his three three-pointers in that quarter and one in overtime.
“Well, Jameer has been doing this for a long time in this league,” Rubio said. “We didn’t do a good job on defense in the third quarter. It’s on us. We followed the game plan in the first half. We didn’t do it in the second half.”
The Wolves now are 6-4 away from Target Center, 3-9 at it and 9-13 overall while the Nuggets won a home game for the first time in nearly a month.
On Friday, the Wolves played the fourth quarter’s final 28 seconds and overtime without Rubio after he fouled out. Foul trouble was a theme: Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Nemanja Bjelica all fought it Friday as well.
“I was mad I couldn’t help my team out there,” Rubio said. “It’s that kind of moment that you’re working all season long to play. I couldn’t do it tonight because I made stupid fouls.”