NEW ORLEANS – Whatever momentum the Timberwolves found in Sunday’s blowout home victory over Phoenix vanished Tuesday night during a 114-99 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Trying to follow Sunday’s 30-point victory that ended a nine-game losing streak, the Wolves quickly built a 17-point lead for the ninth time this season. For the fifth time, they failed to protect it.
The same team that scored 38 first-quarter points managed only 61 the rest of the night, including a lopsided third quarter during which the Pelicans outscored the Wolves 31-15.
“It’s disappointing because we’re doing a great job getting ourselves in position to end the game early,” Wolves rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “But we seem to let it slip away.”
As the Wolves already had done in games against Denver, Milwaukee and Portland (twice) this season, they let that 17-point lead — 38-21 in the first quarter’s final minute — disintegrate from what interim coach Sam Mitchell called “beautiful basketball” into what point guard Ricky Rubio labeled selfishness.
“We were getting wide-open shots, we were getting free throws, we were getting layups,” Mitchell said. “We were setting screens, rolling to the basket. We just moved the basketball.”
For one fleeting quarter in particular, the Wolves did as they pleased, making seven of their first eight shots and shooting 13 free throws while New Orleans didn’t attempt a single one. By halftime, they had 12 assists (but finished the game with just 18) and still led by 11 points.
And then, it seemingly stopped. The Pelicans were opening a seven-game homestand, knowing this is their last chance to get back into the playoff conversation after a 14-27 season start. Young superstar Anthony Davis played like it, delivering a 35-point performance on 13-for-22 shooting.
The Pelicans turned the game with a 14-4 burst that started the third quarter, while the Wolves went more than 9 ½ minutes from midway through the third until early in the fourth quarter without scoring a single basket with second-unit players mostly on the floor.
“In the second half, everybody started calling for the ball, everybody wanted the basketball,” Mitchell said. “If you pass the basketball, it’s going to find the open guy. You don’t have to shoot it, but you have to touch it. The ball has to move and it energizes everyone. When you’re touching it and feel a part of the game, it affects you on the defensive end, you have more energy. But when you go six, seven trips without touching it, you feel like you’re not involved.
‘‘With young players, too many times their identity is scoring the basketball. That can’t be your identity.”
Rubio attributed yet another stumble to a team that played at a slower pace as the game progressed, lost its defensive intensity and stopped playing for each other.
“We got selfish; we were playing unselfish that first quarter,” Rubio said. “When we play hard on defense and we can run, that’s our style of game.
‘‘When we stop our defense, we can’t get easy baskets and we play setup plays and it’s not our style. We got stuck.”
Rubio also dismissed the notion that youth cost his team another game.
“It’s not just the young guys, it’s everything on the team,” he said. “You can’t blame everything on the young guys because we don’t have enough experience. It’s basketball. We’ve got to play more simple. Something is not working.”