NEW ORLEANS — Karl-Anthony Towns sat at his locker, feet splayed with ice packs the size of his shoes wrapped on both knees. A thousand-yard stare intermittently switching to dejection as his eyes darted off into a replay of the game in his mind. Trying to find the moments of this game that slipped away. Trying to find the moments of this season that became derailed. His hand occasionally covering up his face as tried to mask the disappointment and emotion of ending a key road trip sans wins.
It wasn’t that the road trip couldn’t produce a single victory for them in three games. They went into Boston and lost, which isn’t a disaster. They went into Miami and lost, which has happened a lot to teams in the second half of the season. Minnesota went into New Orleans Sunday night and dealt with a team on their own desperation quest for a playoff appearance after so many moments slipped away this season. After a stretch of the season in which the defense was clicking and they were beating really good teams, the Wolves defense went from “figuring it out” to completely falling apart when they needed it most.
“It doesn’t take much to change,” Tom Thibodeau said of his team’s recent defensive failings. “Things can change and they change quickly in this league. Both from good to bad and they go from bad to good. But you’ve got to make it change. It’s not going to change by itself.”
Some will look at the 40 points given up in the third quarter or the 35 points in the fourth as the issue in this game. But it was the way the Wolves ended the first half that showed things slipping away in this game. They came out firing on all cylinders and while the defense wasn’t completely sharp against New Orleans, the offense was putting distance between them. Ricky Rubio was making plays everywhere. Towns was lighting up Anthony Davis or DeMarcus Cousins whenever they were on him.
“Yep, last three minutes of the second quarter — problem,” Thibodeau said after the game when asked about the end of the second quarter. “Second half, come out… no defense. You get what you deserve in this league.”
With 4:15 left in the second quarter, Gorgui Dieng knocked down a couple of free throws to give the Wolves a 52-40 lead. They’d score one more time in the quarter, commit three turnovers, and miss a few shots inside. Minnesota also allowed the Pelicans to close out on an 8-2 run, which doesn’t like much but it’s the world when you’ve gone from controlling the game to losing hold of the rope.
“I wish I could tell you,” Towns admitted when asked what’s going wrong for them in those runs of defensive lapses. “Sometimes, we become young. We start gambling. Start being undisciplined and it hurts us.
“I think we can snap out of it. I think it’s unfortunate that we’ve had a moment where we’ve done this. It starts with all of us. You look at yourself first and then everyone else second. There’s some mistakes you make that you wish you can take back.”
While Davis and Cousins have struggled to find successful stretches on the court together, they were a +17.1 in 24 minutes together in this game. Alvin Gentry rarely had to resort staggering them in the rotation. He was able to use his two monsters effectively on the court at the same time. A big part of that was getting help on the perimeter to create tough and poor decisions by the Wolves defense. When they made mistakes, Jrue Holiday and Jordan Crawford helped torch the missteps.
They combined for 43 points, 17-of-29 shooting, 8-of-12 from 3-point range, and Holiday kicked in seven assists to go with it. Rubio’s streak of four games with 20 points or more came to a screeching halt with 10 points on 10 shots. The Pelicans weren’t too worried about his scoring and Holiday played far off of Rubio most of the night to dare him to space the floor. Rubio did respond with 14 assists and he hit 2-of-5 from deep. He just couldn’t find the rhythm off the dribble.
Towns was his usual spectacular self scoring the ball. For the first time in his career, he outscored Davis in a showdown. KAT had 33 points to AD’s 28. It seemed like 16 of those points came with a quickness for Towns, and the rest of the game was more of a struggle. The scoring binge was something we’re growing quite used to, which is still scary and enticing for a 21-year old. Even when the frustration of losing these key games is coming back to haunt you at the end of the season.
Over his last 32 games (dating back to January 9th), Towns has been on a run that has him averaging 28.3 points and 12.8 rebounds. His shooting splits during that time are 60.1/42.1/82.9 and a true shooting of 66.7%. To put that in perspective, Steph Curry in his unanimous MVP season a year ago had a true shooting percentage of 66.9%. It’s a more ridiculous number for a guard than a big man, but Towns isn’t your traditional big man with how he scores.
None of that matters right now because while Towns outscored Davis for the first time in his career, he lost to him for the fifth time. And they’ve only played each other five times. What was so prescient of good things to come after the win over Washington has become a cloudy grave of reality that too many mistakes this season have ended up costing the Wolves a true run at the postseason in the final weeks.
The Wolves have a road-heavy schedule the rest of the way. They sort of controlled their destiny with three games remaining against Portland (one game back of Denver) and three games against the Lakers. They could’ve turned those contests into a lot of pressure on Denver and Portland to keep their stride.
The addition of Omri Casspi will help cure some of the problems right now, but it can’t overcome everything that has put Minnesota in this position.
“It’s the way it is now,” Towns said. “Can’t go back and change it. We came in with a lot of confidence. The last three games, it seems like we’re going up there with the knife at our own throat. We’ve got to come back strong.”
Dejection will eventually become elation and focused determination. But for a night in New Orleans, the Wolves felt young again.