Sports

Timberwolves in a hole after epic collapse, mistakes from Karl-Anthony Towns and Chris Finch

MINNEAPOLIS—The match was lit. Target Center was ablaze, and the Timberwolves appeared to be steamrolling toward a 2-1 lead in their Western Conference series with the memphis grizzlies. It was exactly what these fans have waited so long to see; a team that was capable of exceeding expectations, playing together and earning their trust.

With 1:05 to play in the third quarter, the Timberwolves led by 21 points, and the arena was in full-on celebration mode. These Timberwolves had bottled up Ja Morantgotten Jaren Jackson Jr. into foul trouble and unlocked the struggling D’Angelo Russell. Even after giving up a 26-point lead in the second quarter, things were fine. The Wolves were in control, and it was only a matter of time before they finished off the victory and set up a Game 4 on Saturday night that could have blown the roof off the place.

Instead, what followed was a Vikings-level collapse. Until now, the Timberwolves have played precious few games with the stakes to break the Minnesota sports fan’s heart the way the Vikings have so many times over the years. They finally had one on Thursday night, and they promptly collapsed down the stretch in epic fashion, getting outscored 50-13 over the last 15 minutes in a 104-95 loss to the Grizzlies that put them down 2-1 in the best-of -seven series.

Over the game’s final 15 minutes, Memphis outscored Minnesota 50-16, including 37-12 in the fourth quarter. The Wolves were 3-for-19 in the fourth, including 1-for-11 from 3-point range. The Grizzlies out-rebounded the Wolves 19-5 in the final period, and patrick beverley missed all five of his shots, including a wide-open corner 3 that would have tied it with three minutes to play.

“Twelve points second quarter, 12-point fourth quarter is unacceptable,” Beverley said. “We’ll look at the film. We’ll get better at that. We generated the shots we wanted. We defended well. They only had 104 points. So it looked bad, but it doesn’t feel as bad as it really was.”

That was really all Beverly could say. Of course this felt bad. The Wolves were totally dominating the Grizzlies at two different points in the game. But their 26-point lead in the second quarter shrunk to seven by halftime thanks to a stagnant offense, and their 25-point lead in the third quarter was gone less than five minutes into the fourth due to stagnant offense and an inability to match the Grizzlies’ energy.

Minnesota sports fans have seen losses like this so many times before, but the Timberwolves have rarely been good enough to get fans to open their hearts to them the same way they have to the Vikings and Twins, two franchises that have often disappointed in big moments . After splitting in Memphis, the Wolves returned home to a hero’s welcome. Target Center was filled to the brim, and the noise was ear-splitting.

A team that has often been a laughingstock played a near-perfect first quarter, building an 18-point lead that swelled to 26 in the second. But the Wolves’ inability to close quarters killed them, and Karl-Anthony Towns’ foul trouble resurfaced to add to a growing list of troubling playoff performances on his resume. He had five personal fouls that limited him to 32:46 of playing time, and he took only four shots in the game.

Towns was coming off of a disappointing performance in Game 2, when he had 15 points and 11 rebounds but was held to 28 minutes because of foul trouble. He was 3-for-11 with 11 points before fouling out in the Play-In Tournament win over the Clippers.

Towns has been the team’s best and most reliable player this season, but his performance in two of the three playoff games in this series threatens to overshadow all of the truly great progress he has made. His past two years were essentially lost to injuries, COVID-19 and the death of his mother. But this season he returned to the All-Star game, bonded with his teammates like never before and appeared to be putting his big-spot struggles behind him with 29 points and 13 rebounds in Minnesota’s Game 1 win in Memphis.

But four shots? For the franchise player? Towns wasn’t interested in discussing it.

“Next question,” he said.

There were several reasons for the low usage. Russell and Beverley started the game hot, with Beverley taking the ball right at Morant to build an early lead. Russell broke out of his shooting slump with 22 points on 9-of-18 shooting through the first three quarters. But he went 0-of-3 in the fourth.

“I think we get too high, and it comes back and it haunts us,” Russell said. “Losses, try not to get too low. Things like that. When we’re making runs and doing that and we’re at home, I think we should be even-keel and stay locked in to that moment and what we’re doing to get to this feeling of we’re excited.”

Towns picked up two fouls in the first and two in the second, making it hard for him to get a rhythm with his teammates when he was constantly being pulled to the bench to protect him from foul trouble. He made the only shot he took in the fourth quarter, then looked at his hands from him as if to tell his teammates to get him the ball more often. But he didn’t take another shot.

Towns is too easily schemed out of games, which has been a recurring issue for him in Minnesota dating back years. Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins made the expected decision to start small, removing the plodding Steve Adams, who couldn’t stay with Towns on defense. I have inserted Kyle Anderson and moved Jackson to the center spot to bring double-teams. It’s a familiar strategy, and Towns had his moments against it on Thursday night. But in general, he’s had a hard time making defenses pay for that strategy.

It has also been too easy for the smaller defender to deny Towns the ball. When he does get it, the defender either swipes at Towns to try for a steal or calls in reinforcements with a double-team off of Jarred Vanderbilt to force the ball out of KAT’s hands.

And there are points in games where the Wolves’ guards simply do not or cannot get Towns the ball. Finishing with four shots in a game when his team is struggling to get buckets overall (Minnesota shot 38.8 percent from the field) is inexcusable. He has attempted 11 shots total in the past two games, in part because of the limitations on his minutes because of fouls. He picks up too many on the offensive end, and they add up quickly when he is tasked with protecting the rim against Morant’s relentless drives to the basket.

“I gotta watch film and just try and do everything it takes,” Towns said. “Even crashing from the outside, I’ve stopped that just to possibly take any idea of ​​giving me a foul out. Just gotta work through adversity, honestly. That’s really it. Just stay with each other.”

There was a renewal of the criticism Towns has heard so often in his career, and he will hear it for the next two days going into Game 4 on Saturday night. As a big, he’s always trickier to get involved than, say, Anthony Edwards on the wing. But Towns appears headed for an All-NBA spot this season. The two bigs who will likely be ahead of him, Joel Embid and Nikola Jokic, never have games where they get four shots. It just doesn’t happen, and maybe that’s because the Nuggets and Sixers guards where they recognize their bread is buttered.

“KAT is the main piece of what we try to go on here,” Beverley said. “Obviously when he’s in foul trouble, it doesn’t help us. But I really think he (protected) the rim real good tonight. Five blocks. Just all about making the right play. I had a couple shots at the end I think I could’ve stepped up and made. I put that on me, and I have to do better.”

The Wolves have to find a way to get Towns more involved on offense, and Towns has to be more disciplined in not committing unnecessary fouls. His final whistle of the night was borderline, but by and large, the fouls he was called for were deserved. The Wolves do not have a chance against the Grizzlies if they don’t figure that out.

“They swarm him everywhere. Three in the post and at the top of the key,” coach Chris Finch said. “They’re in on him. We got to find him in the flow, and that’s just how it’s going to have to be. When we went to him, they doubled, and they got good looks. We didn’t knock them down.”

Towns did make quick decisions against the double, often giving the ball up to try to keep it moving for better looks for his teammates. But when the offense dried up late in the third and into the fourth quarter, the Timberwolves needed to incorporate their most efficient offensive player. And that player needed to be ready to take things over. Towns pointed to the 26-point lead the Wolves had built up as support for the idea that his team is not far away.

“We saw a recipe,” he said. “We saw something that was working, we just gotta exploit it more.”

The biggest shame of it all is the fouls and quiet offense came during one of the best defensive performances of Towns’ life in the first three quarters. He was everywhere on defense, boxing out Grizzlies to allow Vanderbilt to gobble up rebounds, blocking five shots, altering numerous others at the rim and walling off Morant, who had one of the most misleading triple-doubles you’ll ever see. I have finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and three blocks. But he also turned the ball over seven times and missed 13 of his 18 shots, looking completely flustered for much of the game.

“Try my best to impact the game, come in the paint, try to block everything,” Towns said. “That’s what the guards asked for, and I wanted to oblige by it. So anytime they come in the paint, I wanted to make life hell for anyone, Ja Morant, anyone coming in the paint.”

Beverley attacked Morant on defense, getting easy buckets and collapsing the defense to create for others. In the first half, he threw a pass off the backboard to himself that got the sold-out crowd whipped into a frenzy. But maybe the young Wolves got too wrapped up in what was a rowdy atmosphere.

“The emotion in the building should be the only emotion from our team,” said Russell, who led the Wolves with 22 points, eights assists and five rebounds.


Holding massive leads at multiple points in the game, the Timberwolves celebrated with the raucous Target Center crowd. (Brad Rempel/USA Today)

As he has all season, Tyus Jones stepped in to save the Grizzlies, hitting all three of his 3s, including two huge ones in the fourth quarter that completed the Grizzlies comeback. Brandon Clark also thrashed the Wolves with 12 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter.

Finch, the Wolves’ highly respected coach, made some mistakes as well. The biggest one came during a 21-0 run in the second half that allowed the Grizzlies to jump in front. Finch did not call a timeout during the entire run, only calling for one after Jones’ 3 gave Memphis an 86-85 lead with 6:48 to play.

“Burned a lot early, so I was hoping we’d just be able to get through to the fourth a little bit deeper beforehand,” Finch said.

Unlike most of the buttons Finch has pushed in this breakthrough season for the Wolves, that one did not connect. He has generally been in favor of empowering the players, letting them play through struggles and find themselves. But it just didn’t work on Thursday night. The Grizzlies just kept coming and coming at the Wolves, stunning a home crowd that was dancing to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” with a 16-point lead to start the fourth quarter.

As devastating as this loss was, the Timberwolves walked out of the arena after the game knowing they can hang with the second seed. They beat the Grizzlies in Game 1 and were smashing them — at two different times in the same game! — in Game 3 before they gave it all away. The Wolves entered the series believing they could pull off the upset, and in some ways that didn’t change after Thursday night.

Morant was off most of the night. Jackson played 21 minutes because of foul trouble and scored just six points. The Wolves held leads of 26 and 25 points. KAT can be better. Finch can be better. They believe there is something to build on there. A win on Saturday would knot the series at two games apiece and guarantee that it would go at least six games.

“No one said it was going to be easy,” Beverley said. “We don’t want it to be easy. We want it to be extremely hard, and it was. Again, this is a playoff loss, but it’s a lot we can learn from here, and we will.”

(Top photo: Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

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