It was a mere side note at the time as the Minnesota Timberwolves rode the high of what appeared to be a massive road victory, but Minnesota went five minutes without scoring down the stretch of its 113-108 early-season victory in Milwaukee.
Minnesota put a lot of pressure on its defense to get stops as it failed to put the game away with buckets. But so what? The Wolves still won, so the late-game offensive struggles didn’t seem all that important.
But they re-appeared at the worst possible time Wednesday in Memphis. Minnesota’s offensive lethargy played a massive role in the Wolves surrendering a 16-point fourth-quarter advantage to lose in overtime to the Grizzlies. It was Minnesota’s fifth-straight defeat.
Over the final 9 minutes, 30 seconds of action — including overtime — the Wolves went 2 for 16 shooting from the floor, while turning the ball over six times.
There was no sense of purpose, much less urgency. The ball movement that was hyper-present through the first three-plus quarters was gone. Minnesota looked partially like it was tensing up and partially like it thought it already had won the game.
Mix those two together and you have a disastrous concoction. The Wolves avoided a similar result in Milwaukee because, frankly, the Bucks missed a few good looks down the stretch. Memphis wasn’t so charitable, so Minnesota paid the prices for its lack of killer instinct.
“Sometimes when I look at tape we look like a team playing not to lose and not playing to win,” center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “That’s something we’ve done and something we really need to stop. The way we got the lead is the way we need to continue to play like we have the lead, and we just haven’t shown that consistency that we need to garner.”
Certainly not late in games. In fourth quarters this season, the Wolves are being outscored by 31.2 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark in the NBA. In “clutch time” — in the final five minutes of games that are separated by five points or less — Minnesota is being outscored by 43 points per 100 possessions, second worst in the league.
At the most important times, the Timberwolves are at their worst. That’s how you crawl out to a 3-6 start, despite the NBA’s easiest schedule. That’s how you lose five straight games.
The Timberwolves are consistently turning wins into losses late in games. On Nov. 5, the Wolves entered the fourth quarter trailing the Clippers by three, then were outscored by 17 in the final period. On Nov. 1, they led the lowly Magic by six after three periods, and were outscored 43-19 in a fourth quarter in which they were 4 for 21 shooting from the field. Two days prior, Minnesota led the Nuggets by four points after 36 minutes but lost by two after going 8 for 21 from the field in the fourth.
In Wednesday’s loss, the Wolves seemed far too lackadaisical to execute at the level the fourth quarter requires. Everything was far more careless than crisp.
Minnesota is averaging just 21.4 points in final quarters this season, shooting 35 percent from the field, and 29 percent from deep. That won’t cut it in winning time, or anytime really. If it doesn’t change, the losses will continue to mount.
“I don’t think it’s a product of a young team,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “I think we just have to make the mental adjustment quicker.”