PHOENIX – Judging by his words or actions, Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders intends to use the final weeks of this fading season to audition young players for the promise of another next season and judiciously play veteran Kevin Garnett, all of it with a keen eye on the NBA standings and his team’s positioning for draft lottery luck.
As for the precious present, Wednesday’s sloppy 106-97 loss at Phoenix was strictly off-Broadway stuff.
The Wolves started a four-game trip 0-2. Garnett didn’t play again for a second consecutive game, and center Nikola Pekovic played only eight minutes because of that troublesome ankle.
Leading 4-0 after the first two minutes and tied late in the second quarter, the Wolves surrendered the first half’s final six points in its last 66 seconds and the Suns only briefly trailed once the rest of the way, extending their lead to as many as 14 points by the fourth quarter.
Saunders praised his team’s ball movement, its effort and a 52-point performance from the team’s bench during a game when six Wolves players scored in double figures, including newly acquired center Justin Hamilton’s career-high 15 points.
“We played pretty well, save for about eight minutes,” he said.
Garnett sat because of a sore knee and because Saunders said he wanted to see how rookie Adreian Payne followed Monday’s 16-point, 15-rebound game against the Clippers in Los Angeles. He wanted to see not so much what kind of statistics Payne put up Wednesday but rather the kind of energy and concentration he was able to muster after a game such as Monday’s.
Let the record show Payne followed up with 10 points and three rebounds. Let the record also show that Saunders pulled Payne from the game 20 seconds into the second half and sat him down for the next seven minutes after he didn’t follow through on Saunders’ coaching and rolled his eyes when Saunders shouted out a correction.
“No big deal,” Saunders said.
Pekovic played just eight first-half minutes before he was done for the night. He took three shots from the field in those eight minutes, made none and had a rebound, an assist and no points before Saunders called upon second-year backup Gorgui Dieng to start the second half for him.
Afterward, he described a stabbing pain in his ankle. “I tried, but if you can’t move, you make more damage for your team,” he said. “Let somebody else play.”
When Saunders pulled Payne, Hamilton entered the game beside Dieng into a suddenly reconfigured frontcourt.
Hamilton played 28 productive minutes Wednesday two days after making his Wolves debut, when he played nine minutes against the Clippers. That was his first game action since he played for Miami in a Feb. 11 game at Cleveland.
“You just have to be ready whenever the coach calls. Coach called me 10 seconds in [to the half] or whatever, I don’t know what it was,” Hamilton said. “I just had to hop up and get in the game. Once you hear the coach call your name, you don’t want them to regret the decision. It was good to get out there, make a three, keep playing and feel a rhythm.”
The two teams last met Feb. 20, the day after the NBA trade deadline, in a game at Target Center that the Wolves won 111-109.Each side played without players traded away and acquired at the deadline, the Wolves missing Thaddeus Young until Garnett joined the team and the Suns playing five men short while they waited for point guard Brandon Knight, among others.
Knight went missing again Wednesday, this time because of a sprained ankle suffered Monday. That left Eric Bledsoe as the Suns’ only real option left at point guard.
“They used to have five point guards,” Saunders said about an opponent that traded away Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, “and now they have one.”