CLEVELAND – The Timberwolves played at a pace Monday with which Cleveland’s newly promoted coach prefers his Eastern Conference-leading and perhaps NBA Finals-bound team play, careening through a dizzying fourth quarter with them right up until the final ticks of the Cavaliers’ 114-107 victory at Quicken Loans Arena.
And for all but that final outcome, Wolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell was just fine with that.
Promoted Friday from associate head coach to replace abruptly fired David Blatt, Tyronn Lue lamented his players’ conditioning after the Cavaliers lost his first game Saturday at home to division rival Chicago.
On Monday, the Cavs won for him for the first time, beginning to push the basketball in search of easier baskets. It’s a faster style Lue believes they must play if they intend to defeat Golden State, among others, for a NBA title.
Afterward, Cavaliers superstar LeBron James observed “pace helps” and made shots don’t hurt, either. That was particularly true in a game that swung wildly in the final 18 minutes, when the Wolves tried to answer Cleveland runs of 23-7 and 10-0 with sudden bursts of their own but could not do so successfully.
Down the hall, Mitchell said, “We’re fine with pace. We want our guys to eventually play with pace. That’s what we want our guys to do.”
He wants something else from his players as well after they lost for the 24th time in 30 games since an 8-8 season start: He wants them to know and believe they’re capable of winning games such as Monday’s.
Wolves young stars Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine became the first three 20-year-old teammates in NBA history to score at least 20 points each in the same game.
“We’re playing well enough,” Mitchell said. “At some point, we just have to believe a little more that we can beat these teams. We’re there. We’re fighting. We’ve just got to start having the confidence. I know we’re young and it’s a lot to ask of the young guys. I think sometimes they don’t realize how well they play at times.”
On Monday, they tried to counter the Cavs’ 23-7 run that ended the third quarter and started the fourth with a 16-4 run of their own that cut a 90-75 deficit with 10 ½ minutes to just three points midway through the quarter. Trailing by 13 points not long after, the Wolves got within three points again — at 110-107 — with 16.5 seconds left, but couldn’t get closer.
Inserted by Lue as the Cavaliers’ new starting center in a small lineup that’s still big, power forward Tristan Thompson went 3-for-3 and scored nine points in six minutes down the stretch. Each time the Wolves pushed back, Thompson seemed to answer with an emphatic dunk.
“We’ve done a great job all year getting better,” Towns said after a 26-point, 11-rebound night. “We have flashes where we’re great. Not good, but great. Today we were good, but against a team like the Cleveland Cavaliers you have to be great at the end.”
Towns disagreed with his coach’s notion that he and his teammates must find the confidence to win.
“I don’t know if it’s that,” Towns said. “You know me, I’m full of confidence. There was never a moment in that game where I thought we had lost. Until the final horn, we keep fighting.”