NEW ORLEANS – Taj Gibson stared at the floor and began talking to himself, often punctuating his words with curses. Then he got up and went to the showers, trying to wash off the latest Wolves disappointment, a 123-114 loss to the Pelicans at Smoothie King Center.
“I’m still scratching my head wondering what happened,” Gibson said.
What happened was the Wolves couldn’t take advantage of a New Orleans squad that was without All-Star Anthony Davis, who was a late scratch because of an illness.
But Davis’ New Orleans teammates picked up the slack while the Wolves defense slacked at the wrong moments, specifically in guarding the three-point line, where the Pelicans hit 14 of 25 attempts. That included 5-for-8 shooting from Darius Miller (21 points), who provided a key shot to put the Pelicans up 115-109 with 1 minute, 16 seconds to play. Miller’s night, combined with 33 points from Julius Randle, had Gibson and some of his teammates shaking their heads after the game.
“Until we play defense for 48 minutes, it’s going to be hard to win,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said.
Karl-Anthony Towns had 28 points and 17 rebounds for the Wolves, who were again without point guards Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague, both nursing injured ankles. Their absence showed up in the play of the bench, which couldn’t hold an 89-88 lead the Wolves gained after making up a 12-point halftime deficit. No bench player was better than minus-12 in the plus-minus column while the starters were in positive figures.
“It’s discipline. Everyone’s got to do their job, but it wasn’t just the bench,” Thibodeau said. “We can’t pick and choose when we’re going to do things.”
Specifically, Thibodeau said, the Wolves were “closing short” on New Orleans’ shooters. And, Gibson said, the Pelicans were fortunate, especially in the first half, when Randle and E’Twaun Moore (17 points) combined to shoot 14-for-20.
“They were getting a lot of lucky bounces,” Gibson said. “It was really frustrating at times with the way the ball bounces, but that’s a part of the game. … Got a lot of tough bounces, but we could’ve played better on defense.”
That has been the story in a lot of close Wolves losses this season. Coming in, they vowed not to let as many close games get away. But headed into the new year they’ve already done damage in that department. There were a pair of winless West Coast trips early. Of late, there were games they should have won against Detroit and Atlanta at home. The basketball gods seemed to be handing the Wolves a break Monday when Davis didn’t play. All of a sudden the game became much more winnable, except the Wolves got in their own way.
“These close games we got to find a way to pull through,” said Jones, who had 15 points and 13 assists. “We got to find a way to come out on the other end. We’re fighting, and we just got to find a way to come out on the right side of things and we got to learn from it.”
Except class time is running out.
Despite his evident frustration Monday, Gibson said he wasn’t about to abandon hope for the season, citing a second-half surge from the Jazz last season as part of the foundation of his hope.
“I’m always going to keep the faith,” Gibson said. “I was here last year and everybody wrote Utah off. Utah came back and turned the whole thing around. Everybody in the West is still bunched up. We still have a shot, but we got to turn it around right away.”
They took another small turn in the opposite direction Monday.