MILWAUKEE -- After watching his team blow a 20-point third quarter lead in an excruciating 102-96 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night, Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns offered an interesting explanation as to why his group completely let go of Tom Thibodeau's proverbial rope down the stretch.
"You play with fire too much, the basketball gods don't like that," Towns said, after the Bucks snapped Minnesota's five-game winning streak. "We could have did a lot of things differently to win this game, especially with the lead that we had, but we played with fire one too many times and it burnt us."
Towns is right in that the Timberwolves have developed a nasty habit throughout the season of building up big leads and then squandering them late. On some nights Thibodeau's group pulls out the game down the stretch, as it did in a Wednesday night overtime win over the Denver Nuggets.
Some nights the Timberwolves don't. But the reality of Thursday night's affair could be as simple as this: In their third game in four nights, the Timberwolves might have just run out of gas.
"It happens, man," Timberwolves All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler said of the group getting tired. "We're all human. You can get tired, but my thing is we just can't have that many mental lapses. We should have never been in that position to begin. We have to continually be better at building upon leads, instead of giving them up ... in all, we lost, man. It's something to learn from. Back to the drawing board."
Butler and teammate Taj Gibson have been groomed in Thibodeau's school of hard knocks for years, dating to the trio's days with the Chicago Bulls. They loathe giving any excuses after losses -- a trait drilled into them by the veteran coach every day. But a deeper look into the numbers shows that maybe all the minutes did have an impact on the Bucks.
Towns is averaging 36.4 minutes over his past five games. Gibson is averaging 35.6 over the same stretch. Butler is averaging the most of the group, playing 39.8 minutes over the past five games. Butler has always taken pride in his conditioning and says he believes he can set the mental tone for the rest of his group by producing no matter the circumstances. That's why it came as no surprise when he answered that his team's breakdown against the Bucks was more in their heads than anything else.
"It's mental," Butler said. "We had a couple mishaps. All in all man, that's basketball for you. Teams are going to go on a run. You gotta withstand that run, do your job, and finish out. I don't think we did that in the end."
Gibson said that Thibodeau dealt with the loss in a more even-keeled way than he might have in years past.
"He didn't really say much," Gibson said. "He said we're playing some good basketball right now. We've just got to do a lot better. We've got to learn from our mistakes. Personally, I felt it was a good exercise for us coming into a hostile environment, a team that was desperate for a win. I think it was good for our guys to learn how to execute in games. Especially in the fourth quarter when the crowd is just rocking, you can't really hear the next man in front of you. We just got to execute better and play better defense late."
The argument regarding whether or not Thibodeau rides his players too hard and burns them out over the course of the season has raged since his first year as a head coach in Chicago. He watches the box scores, he studies the stats and figures, but he has always believed that players condition themselves to play long stretches and are capable of logging big minutes over the course of the season. Because, in his mind, that's what they train for and that's what they're paid to do.
But as the Timberwolves enter into a brutal stretch of games that includes 17 in the month of January and a back-to-back to open the new year, the conversation regarding how Thibodeau doles out the minutes is something to keep an eye on. Especially since point guard Jeff Teague could be out for a month because of a knee sprain and Tyus Jones (finger) and Andrew Wiggins (ankle) are nursing nagging injuries of their own.
In the short term, Gibson and Butler are hoping their younger teammates will learn from Thursday's meltdown and come back stronger because of it. They've been around the league long enough to know that Thursday's loss had less to do with angering basketball gods and more to do with the fact that the young group just couldn't make plays when they needed them most.