On the night when they were officially eliminated from the NBA playoffs for the 13th consecutive season, the Timberwolves once again were plagued by a familiar foil:
Their own defense.
Saturday, the Timberwolves played host to a Sacramento team in full rebuild mode, having gone 5-14 since trading star DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans. With less than two minutes left in a first quarter that featured fierce defense and fast breaks, the Wolves held a 16-point lead.
And then it all went away.
In a 123-117 loss, the Wolves saw the Kings score their highest total in a non-overtime game since Dec. 20, shoot 56.4 percent overall, score 48 points in the paint and hit 11 of 19 three-pointers.
What else is there?
“We let up,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said, echoing what seems to be a season-long lament. “And it didn’t take much for those guys to get going.”
For the 20th time this season, the Wolves (30-45) — who were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention with Portland’s victory later Saturday night — built a double-figure lead and lost. For the umpteenth time, it seems, the Wolves played well enough to be in control of a game, only to let it get away.
The Kings (30-47) opened the second quarter on a 21-11 run. They shot 62.5 percent, hit all three three-pointers and scored 20 of their 36 third-quarter points in the paint while building a six-point lead entering the fourth. Sacramento then pushed that lead to 15 in the first 2 ½ minutes of the fourth quarter.
“We got off to a good start,” said Andrew Wiggins, who scored 32 points on 13-for-20 shooting. “We just let ’em back in the game. They got comfortable, gained confidence and started knocking down shots. We weren’t into our man, we weren’t pressuring the ball, we weren’t turning them over.”
Karl-Anthony Towns scored 26 points with 11 rebounds. Ricky Rubio had 11 points and 13 assists, though he shot only 1-for-10 from the floor.
The Kings? Rookie Buddy Hield — who came to Sacramento in that Cousins deal — scored 22.
The trio of Ty Lawson (21 points), Langston Galloway (17) and Arron Afflalo (16) led a Kings bench that outscored Wolves reserves 66-26.
Sacramento outscored the Wolves 73-54 over the second and third quarters and shot an even 60 percent in the second half.
Down 15 with 7:37 left, the Wiggins hit two three-pointers in a 12-2 run that brought the Wolves within 106-101 with 5:50 left on Shabazz Muhammad’s fast-break layup.
But the Wolves couldn’t get enough stops to get all the way back. Playing with a small lineup, the Kings were able to get both open threes and open lanes to the basket.
“We can’t come out and be like that,” Towns said. “We can’t ever be outworked. I felt like we were outworked in the second half. We put ’em at a big deficit, we should have put the game away. We can’t have games like that.”
But there have been so many.
Thibodeau was asked what it would take, ultimately, to get the defense on the same page. “Keep working at it,” he said. “We have to keep working at it.”
Saturday morning, Sacramento coach and Minnesota native Dave Joerger praised the Wolves team in general, lauded its young talent and said the Wolves would be a lock for the playoffs next season.
But now? Back to the drawing board with only seven games left to play in the 2016-17 season.
“In the first half, the ball pressure was good,” Wiggins said. “In the second half, it was nowhere to be found.”