MINNEAPOLIS -- The quantum leap so many predicted for the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team stocked with as much tantalizing young talent as any in the NBA, ended up being more of a stumble forward.
The Timberwolves (31-50) trudge into the final game of their fizzled season with only two more victories than a year ago, falling far short of expectations after proven coach Tom Thibodeau inherited a roster that featured a pair of productive recent No. 1 overall picks. They walked out of the Target Center on Tuesday night with a painfully familiar feeling, having crumbled in crunch time to allow an Oklahoma City team resting an MVP candidate and two other starters to pull out a 100-98 road win.
The momentum Minnesota seemed to be generating in the middle of the season -- the Timberwolves had a 17-12 stretch over a two-month span that included eight wins over teams that have clinched playoff spots -- is long gone. The Timberwolves have lost 12 of their past 15 games despite the individual brilliance of 21-year-old big man Karl-Anthony Towns, who has 28.4 points and 13.0 rebounds per game since the All-Star break.
“I think there’s been progress most definitely, but it’s upsetting that we have to come down the stretch at the end of our season with losses like this,” Towns told ESPN after his 26-point, 12-rebound performance Tuesday. “I think we’ve worked tremendously hard to improve our team, and right now we’re just not showing it. We’ve got things we’ve got to work on so next year we’re ready.”
A case can be made that the Timberwolves aren’t that far away from turning the corner. Their point differential (minus-1.1 points per game) is by far the best among the teams with the league’s bottom 10 records.
Maybe all Minnesota has to do to put itself in the playoff picture next season is cure itself of a strong case of clutch misery. Of course, that’s probably a lot easier said than done.
The Timberwolves are 15-29 this season in games that have been within five points in the final five minutes, suffering more losses in such contests than every team other than the Phoenix Suns, who also happen to rely heavily on peach-fuzz-faced kids. Ricky Rubio (minus-64), Towns (minus-54) and Andrew Wiggins (minus-52) have three of the 11 worst clutch plus-minus totals in the league, according to NBA.com statistics.
It’s understandable that Wiggins, 22, whose 3-pointer at the buzzer Tuesday night clanked off the back iron, and Towns are going through are going through growing pains with the game on the line. Rubio, a pass-first point guard who has picked ahead of Stephen Curry in the 2009 draft in large part because of his basketball IQ, should not be making the mental mistakes that cause his coach to cuss in the final minutes of games.
“Why the f--- would you do that?!” Thibodeau barked after Rubio fouled Oklahoma City’s Norris Cole more than 30 feet from the hoop with Minnesota nursing a one-point lead and the Thunder in the bonus with 43.8 seconds remaining.
If the Timberwolves plan on ending a playoff drought that spans 13 seasons and nine coaching changes, they better figure out how to perform late in close games.
“That’s what we have to learn,” Thibodeau said. “We’re up, there’s 44 seconds to go, you don’t want to beat yourself, so you have to be disciplined. You don’t trick people. You just have to be sound. We don’t need crazy shots. We don’t need gambles. All you have to do is be solid and disciplined and do your job. If you do that, then you give yourself a good chance to win.”
Maybe the Timberwolves need to make roster changes to install that kind of discipline. There is sensible speculation that a couple of tough, playoff-seasoned veterans with Thibs ties -- Oklahoma City power forward Taj Gibson and Memphis shooting guard Tony Allen -- could be fits for Minnesota in free agency.
Minnesota’s young face of the franchise is at least hearing Thibodeau’s message. Towns mentioned the importance of discipline three times during a 104-second interview. Towns also said that he loves challenges and embraces the burden of turning around a franchise that has been stuck in lottery purgatory since he was in elementary school. He insists this season hasn’t been a lost cause despite the disappointing results.
“It’s a learning experience,” Towns said. “We’ve got to learn. We’ve got a lot of things to work on. The good thing is we know what we’ve got to do, we’ve got to fix, and come back next season stronger, better, a lot smarter also and more experienced.”
Thibodeau agreed that the young Timberwolves are learning, just not as fast as he wants. They’re working, just not as hard as he wants.
“I think they’re probably doing a lot, but it’s not up to what they really need to do,” Thibodeau said. “So building those habits and studying and preparing and getting yourself ready to go, it’s a big part of this league, and the teams that are serious do it.”