HOUSTON – Unlikely as it might have been, the NBA’s most reluctant three-point shooting team outscored the most prolific in that category in Houston on Wednesday night and yet the Timberwolves still lost their eighth consecutive and 12th in the past 13 games, 107-104 to the Rockets.
Beforehand, Wolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell said his team needed to defend as many chucked three-point shots as possible and the Rockets needed to miss some they usually make if the Wolves intended to end a losing streak that dates to 2015.
His team did both, making eight of 17 three-point shots, while the Rockets went 7-for-30 with a shooting display that star guard James Harden simply called “bricks.”
And the Wolves lost anyway because of too many mistakes — turnovers and blown defensive assignments among them — at all the wrong times.
The Wolves had 21 turnovers, eight by starting point guard Ricky Rubio, and they let Houston veteran Jason Terry get free with fewer than two minutes left for the Rockets’ final made three-pointer, after they seemingly had spent all evening missing them from everywhere.
“I just don’t know,” Mitchell said. “Those [turnovers] are things we don’t normally do. We tried to throw passes that just weren’t there.”
And yet the Wolves still had the chance to force overtime when Kevin Martin’s forced three-point attempt as time ran down came up well short.
When it missed, the Rockets had won their fifth consecutive game and the Wolves remain the NBA’s only team not to win a game in the new year.
“It’s frustrating not being able to win,” said Wolves forward Andrew Wiggins, who scored a game-high 28 points. “Every game we’ve played good, but it’s just something. Something we’re not doing, a mistake we made we have to fix it.”
Those mistakes included two notable ones by Rubio in the game’s final five minutes.
“Too many turnovers,” Rubio said afterward, “especially by me.”
The most damaging one came on an offensive foul with 2 minutes, 12 seconds left after Martin seemed to have tied the score with a corner three. It was wiped away when Rubio was called for an illegal screen after he collided with Harden while he handed the ball to Martin.
Rubio, Martin and Mitchell all unsuccessfully argued with referees against the call, one of which Martin called “a couple questionable calls at the end that went their way.”
Instead of the score being tied, the Rockets pushed their lead to 105-99 with 1:56 left on the ensuing possession when Terry was left alone for a three-pointer he didn’t miss.
“We defended well, except the last one we gave to Jason Terry,” Mitchell said. “I’m still trying to figure out how we gave that up. That shouldn’t happen.”
Mitchell asked Rubio to defend 6-8 Trevor Ariza but he wanted taller players to defend Harden on pick-and-roll plays. Using a switching strategy all night until then, Wiggins and Martin instead converged on Harden, allowing Terry to roll free undefended.
“We weren’t on the same page up top,” Martin said. “I wished he had missed it. We can’t have those mistakes at the end.”
Trailing by seven points with 1:37 left, the Wolves got within three points with 51 seconds left and had the ball and the chance to tie with a three-pointer with 7.7 seconds left.
“I shot the ball and missed it and we lost,” said Martin, who pleaded for a foul call. “Pretty simple.”