HOUSTON – Pablo Prigioni was the lucky one.
After the Timberwolves assistant coach got ejected arguing a call at the end of the first half, he wasn’t on the bench for the second half, meaning he didn’t have to sit through the onslaught that was coming at the hands of the Rockets.
The Wolves have been competitive for most of the games they’ve played without center Karl-Anthony Towns. That wasn’t the case Saturday as Houston mauled them 139-109 at the Toyota Center.
“Hey, we got our butts kicked,” coach Ryan Saunders said. “Credit to Houston. They’re a good basketball team. We got to grow from that.”
The Wolves defense has helped them hold their own as Towns’ missed game count has increased to 13, this time adding an illness on top of his left knee sprain.
But after a close first quarter, Saturday was all Houston as the Wolves began a stretch in which eight of their next nine opponents are in playoff position.
The Wolves suffered their most lopsided loss of the season. Few things went right for them over the final three quarters in a game that was the polar opposite of their win Thursday over Portland, one of their most complete games of the season. It could have been even worse. The Rockets led by 41, 129-88, with 6:52 left in the fourth quarter.
It was 22-20 Houston after an ugly first quarter that featured a combined 13 turnovers.
“It was just the first team to throw a big punch to win the game,” said guard Shabazz Napier, who had three points.
Houston landed several uppercuts.
The Rockets got themselves together. The Wolves didn’t. Houston outscored the Wolves by 14 in the second quarter (35-21) and 10 in the third (45-35) to make it a runaway.
James Harden committed 11 turnovers. But when he wasn’t turning the ball over, he was dissecting the Wolves with 32 points — surpassing 20,000 for his career — plus 12 rebounds and eight assists. Russell Westbrook had 30 points and 10 assists as the Rockets overcame the absence of the Clint Capela and the early exit of P.J. Tucker because of a right shoulder stinger.
The Wolves were left dumbfounded as to how their defense failed them when it had been so good these past few weeks.
“We didn’t play with that same intensity as we did in the first [quarter],” said Robert Covington, who had 11 points and six steals. “We just came out kind of — I can’t really explain it — our energy just wasn’t there the same way. They started making shots, started making easy plays and everything and kind of got in a rhythm.”
The Wolves couldn’t find one. On offense, Saunders pinned the issues on too much isolation basketball with the Wolves trying to mirror the isolation-heavy Rockets. The Wolves shot just 38%, 27% from three-point range.
“We didn’t play the same system that we normally do,” Covington said. “I don’t know why. It’s been successful. But we have to stay the course with that. We can’t allow our opponents to put us in that mode because that’s how they play. We can’t get caught up in it. That’s not the type of team we are.”
The Wolves looked nothing like their recent selves.
“We had a lot of breakdowns,” Saunders said. “We didn’t guard the ball well. We didn’t rebound well. We let shooters get free. Our transition defense. We had a lot of things that were not good.”
Added Napier: “We missed a ton of shots, and I think we just messed up on coverages and they kind of took advantage of it.”
Near Napier’s feet as he was talking were a couple of boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, comfort food for the Wolves on the plane ride home — whatever it took to console themselves.