Back from a very brief Christmas break, the Timberwolves played on toward their future in Saturday’s 102-88 loss to Indiana at Target Center, a game their coach termed lost “with purpose.”
They lost their third consecutive game due to a fourth-quarter meltdown during which interim head coach Sam Mitchell stuck with five young players, if you include 25-year-old Ricky Rubio. They did so while veteran defender Tayshaun Prince, who had held down Pacers star Paul George until then, watched for the entire fourth quarter. Veteran guard Kevin Martin sat out for a second consecutive game, even though he was healthy enough to play.
After being undone by that 36-20 fourth quarter in which the Pacers made six of nine three-pointers, the Wolves now haven’t won since a week ago in Brooklyn. Indiana ended its losing streak at three games.
Committed to playing youngsters Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine more at the shooting-guard position as well as finding time for rookie point guard Tyus Jones, the Wolves have made Martin the odd man out.
On Saturday, Martin sat all night while Prince and Kevin Garnett sat all fourth quarter. Mitchell instructed Wiggins, LaVine, rookie Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng to all play on, even if their youth cost the Wolves the game.
“Did you see who we had on the court?” Mitchell asked afterward. “We’re young. We had a bunch of young guys on the floor. They make mistakes. That’s what they do.”
The Wolves limited the Pacers to 3-for-17 shooting on threes in the first three quarters, then allowed them to make two out of every three they shot in the fourth quarter, when George and veterans Monta Ellis and George Hill asserted themselves.
“We had different guys on the floor,” Mitchell said, explaining the difference. “I left them out there. At some point, they have to learn how to play and they have to follow instructions and follow the game plan. Fourth quarter, we didn’t follow the game plan.”
Mitchell has chosen that path, deciding Saturday to sit Martin again while giving LaVine more time at shooting guard and playing Jones at backup point guard, days after he was recalled from the D-League.
With Prince mostly defending him, George made just four of his first 13 shots. With Wiggins getting that duty surrounded by LaVine, Towns and Dieng, George went 3-for-3 — including 2-for-2 on threes — and scored eight of his 18 points in the fourth quarter.
Mitchell lamented how his young players think they’re playing adequate defense when they’re not doing the little things it takes to win.
“I thought we did a good job, but they hit some shots,” Towns said. “At the end of the day, it’s about who hits more shots. They hit more shots than us.”
Wiggins said George did what a man making $17 million annually gets paid to do.
“We made it as hard as we could,” Wiggins said. “We’re learning. We made a couple mistakes down the stretch, but it’s nothing we can’t fix.”
The question is, how long will that take?
“It’s a learning process but we have to start winning games,” Rubio said. “Details matter, every single detail. Until we learn that, we aren’t going to win games.”