MEMPHIS – Karl-Anthony Towns cut off the first question of his postgame media scrum at the first mention of the word “defense.”
“We weren’t good,” Towns said. “We gave up a gazillion points. We better hope we score a gazillion and one. We didn’t do that.”
It was still a few shots away from a gazillion, but the Wolves did allow a healthy sum in their 137-121 loss to Memphis at the FedEx Forum.
Coming into the game it was natural to think the Wolves might struggle offensively down their top two point guards in Jeff Teague (illness) and Shabazz Napier (right hamstring strain). But they lost this game on the other end of the floor.
Memphis shot 57% (50-for-88), including 52% (12-for-23) from three-point range. Dillon Brooks torched them for 31 points, including 16 in the fourth quarter. Dynamic rookie Ja Morant had 14 of his 26 in the fourth when Memphis outscored Minnesota 36-25 and took a game that was nip and tuck and gashed it open in the final eight minutes. Rookie Brandon Clarke didn’t miss a shot (7-for-7) in collecting 18 points. Former Wolves guard Tyus Jones added eight points and five assists in 24 minutes.
“It came down to getting stops,” said Andrew Wiggins, who led the Wolves with 30 points. “We couldn’t get no stops.”
The main culprit, multiple Wolves said, was transition defense. The Grizzlies doubled the Wolves in fast-break points (26-13) and were able to get open threes as a result.
“That’s what really dug us a hole, our ability to get back in transition,” coach Ryan Saunders said. “I can’t give a reason except we weren’t communicating, and we didn’t cross match with things.”
According to Wiggins, the breakdown came because the Wolves were trying to locate their specific man in transition instead of just flying to any open player and figuring it out later.
“It carried on the whole game,” Wiggins said. “They were pushing and we were getting back in transition but we weren’t finding a man. We were trying to get back to our own man.”
The Wolves were able to compensate the absences of Teague, who didn’t even make the trip, and Napier just fine offensively. In an encouraging sign for the Wolves, Wiggins put together another strong effort on 11-for-21 shooting to go with six assists as he took over some ball-handling duties. Rookie swingman Jarrett Culver got his first career start thanks to his point- guard abilities and had 15 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Culver was also getting an assist from Napier on the bench.
“He was helping me a lot with plays and reads and stuff like that,” Culver said. “I just saw a lot of things, and he helped me see some things — that’s nothing new. He’s always helped me throughout this whole process since I got here.”
Added Towns: “He’s a rookie, but he showed a lot of poise out there. As a team, it’s unfortunate we couldn’t let the light that was him tonight shine a little brighter because we didn’t play defensively the way we needed to.”
Towns, meanwhile, said he was shaking off some “rust” in his first game back from a two-game suspension. He missed five of his first six attempts.
“I just missed some shots tonight,” Towns said. “It was shots I’ve been making in the beginning part of the year and everything, I just missed a little bit tonight. Just a little long on stuff. It happens.”
But Towns and the Wolves aren’t just passing off their defensive effort as “it happens.” That has to change, and quickly.
“We all could’ve done better on defense,” Culver said. “But we’re learning, and I know we’ll grow from this.”