With 2 minutes left in regulation, the Timberwolves led the visiting Houston Rockets by double digits.
It wasn’t just the big lead that had the Wolves, and their fans, were excited about. It was the way they had built their lead, and held onto it. The double digit lead had been held up since the second quarter, when the Wolves built a 57-44 halftime lead after a huge second quarter. This was upheld during the 3rd quarter, where the Wolves have infamously struggled with keeping consistent. Hell, this was even upheld through the first 10 and a half minutes of the 4th quarter.
Through all of this, they played mostly sound defense on offensive mastermind James Harden (who still nearly managed a triple double through this effort). That is no easy task, even for the NBA’s best perimeter defenders, a tool the current Wolves roster does not have.
In short, this appeared to be the makings of a game where the Wolves were going to win the way the good teams win games. They built a double digit lead, then played smart but aggressive basketball to uphold that lead.
But, with 2 minutes to go, the Rockets turned it on, and the Wolves turned it all the way off.
The problem stayed fairly consistent on each defensive possession: The Rockets would get back quickly, and the Wolves wouldn’t match up in time. A Ryan Anderson three and an Eric Gordon layup got the Wolves a bit nervous, but they still held a 7 point lead with little time left. The defensive breakdowns really started after that.
After a poorly executed pick and roll between Ricky Rubio and Karl-Anthony Towns, the Rockets got going on the fast break. The Wolves got back in time, but Andrew Wiggins did not get back on his man in time. This is especially problematic, because his man is 3-point marksman Trevor Ariza, who you can NOT give space to, especially at this juncture of the game.
Even on a post-timeout half court set, the Wolves failed to communicate defensively. For starters, it should be mentioned that this is a well drawn up play off the inbounds by Mike D’Antoni. That said, this could have been avoided with some better defensive chatter.
Whether Karl-Anthony Towns called for a switch, and Wiggins didn’t get over, or KAT simply didn’t communicate is unclear. It was probably Wiggins’ job to get back. KAT had the drive to Harden’s left, and that was the direction Beard seemed to be going (and generally goes). Either way, leaving Ryan Anderson wide open for a three is never a good call. Wiggins did his best to get back in time, but it wasn’t quick enough.
The play that sent the game to overtime was another half court set, and another defensive breakdown. On this play, Karl-Anthony Towns is on Trevor Ariza, who ends up making the game-tying shot. He leaves Ariza as Harden makes his drive to the basket, leaving Ariza with space. Wiggins tries to recover, but one pump fake and side step gives Ariza space for a clean look.
The question here: with the Wolves up 3, why leave the perimeter (and the historically strong 3-point shooter in clutch situations) to defend the layup? If nothing else, give up the 2 points, and force Houston to play the foul game. Instead, the game is tied.
A bad inbounds play leads the Wolves into overtime. In the OT, neither team played particularly well, but the Rockets,on the latter end of a back-to-back, found a renewed sense of energy, and were able to string together enough baskets to give themselves a comfortable but cautious lead. A lead that the Wolves couldn’t come back from. The Wolves forced themselves into playing from behind the rest of the overtime. It eventually got too late in the overtime, and they couldn’t come all the way back. They couldn’t do what the Rockets had done to them just a few minutes earlier.
This game had all the makings of the best Wolves win of the season, even before the game had started. The Wolves hadn’t played since Tuesday, and the Rockets had just played the night before. They had shown the ability to play like a team that they strive to be if/when the team’s best players reach a certain level of prowess. But tonight was yet another in what has become an onslaught of examples of this team’s inability to hold onto a lead, and close out a game. For now, it remains a flurry of flashes, but rarely something that holds on through an entire game. It could have been that last night, but we’re going to have to keep waiting, it seems.