Two weeks ago, the Timberwolves brought Kevin Garnett back to the family for a veteran’s leadership and late-game intellect.
After Wednesday’s disappointing 100-85 loss to Denver, he turned provocateur, criticizing the collective heart and will of an opponent that just beaten his new team resoundingly.
Until Tuesday, the Nuggets had lost six consecutive, 12 of 13 and 19 of their past 22 games. Then they fired head coach Brian Shaw on Tuesday morning, elevated assistant Melvin Hunt to interim coach and won at home that night for the first time in six weeks. Then they came to Minneapolis and dismantled the Wolves 23 hours later.
Before Wednesday’s game, Wolves coach Flip Saunders said he expected the Nuggets will get an emotional “bounce” from firing one coach and promoting another.
It’s a premise with which Garnett apparently disagreed when asked if he had expected to see a Nuggets team energized and different from the losing one that existed before Tuesday morning.
“To be honest, they quit on Brian Shaw, I thought they’d quit again,” Garnett said. “A quitter is a quitter. That was my take on that.”
The Nuggets beat Milwaukee 106-95 at Pepsi Center on Tuesday and thumped the Wolves one night later, beating them soundly in nearly every statistical category — namely points in the paint, fast-break points, second-chance points — including the only one that really counts.
Afterward, Hunt praised his players’ resiliency, their unselfishness and their determination one night after they celebrated his first NBA career victory by throwing a ball at him, a gesture he misunderstood by swatting away their unique presentation of the game ball.
Did the Nuggets throw anything at him Wednesday night to celebrate victory No. 2?
“Thank goodness they didn’t,” said Hunt, a longtime NBA assistant who has spent the past five seasons in Denver after working in Cleveland, Houston and Los Angeles with the Lakers. “It’s a small locker room in there.”
You couldn’t have blamed Saunders if he had thrown something at his players, rather than the other way around, after his team led 19-12 early, trailed 60-43 at halftime after a lopsided 34-16 second quarter that turned the game in the Nuggets’ favor and led by 19 in the third quarter.
Saunders called it probably the most “disappointing” loss in the past two months, but not surprising. He said the game concerned him beforehand because of the emotional wave his team had surfed this last week since Garnett joined the team in the flesh and consecutive sellout crowds came to Target Center on Wednesday and Saturday to cheer him and his new teammates.
Denver’s coaching change concerned him, too, no matter what Garnett contended.
“We just didn’t play enough with a sense of urgency,” said Saunders, who guaranteed a better effort Saturday against Portland. “Any time you have a coaching change, they’re going to play with a great amount of energy. They drove the ball at us.”
They drove the ball and moved it, too, collecting 16 assists by halftime alone. Point guards Ty Lawson and Jameer Nelson each had nine assists even if starter Lawson went 0-for-9 from the field and didn’t score a point.
“I blame myself,” Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio said. “I didn’t bring it tonight. I didn’t have any energy.”
Wolves youngsters Gorgui Dieng and Adreian Payne struggled up front, allowing Denver forward Kenneth Faried an 18-point, 14-rebound game. Wolves starting center Nikola Pekovic played only 15 minutes, both because of the game’s lopsided nature and because Saunders vows to more carefully measure his minutes now in an attempt to calm his hurting ankle.
“It’s this transition that we are starting here in ’Sota, it’s just going to be that,” Garnett said about a young team trying to find its energy and execution consistently. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen when someone wake up and all of a sudden, voilà, a real light comes through the window. … No excuses. We’ve got to come out and play with better energy and give our fans something to cheer about.”