Minnesota has now won three straight games, yet the conclusions of two of them left an odd taste in the mouth.
The Timberwolves did beat the 76ers on Saturday in Philadelphia, 112-109, to build on a winning streak that has the team back to .500 after a disappointing start to the campaign.
“This is a game that you have to get if you’re in our situation. Not just trying to scratch back to .500 on the season, but that’s also a team that’s severely depleted,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “The schedule presents us with an opportunity to play a team like Philly who’s not at full strength, you’ve got to make hay in this one.”
In the macro, that’s all that matters at this point in the season for Minnesota. The panic in the streets after the 5-8 start that featured a number of embarrassing performances has quelled. The Timberwolves are playing professional-quality basketball.
Pair that with their health and talent, and there’s a reason the Wolves are squashing depleted foes on a nightly basis of late.
But the fourth quarter issues are bubbling, and nearly boiled over in Philadelphia.
Minnesota led Saturday’s contest by as many as 20 points, and held a 15-point advantage with 8 minutes, 30 seconds to play in the final frame. Yet Philadelphia guard De’Anthony Melton had a chance to put the 76ers in front with a transition bucket in the final 10 seconds after stripping Anthony Edwards. But the Wolves guard hustled back to contest and forced a miss to help Minnesota escape with a victory.
“We were able to hang on, make a couple shots, make a couple big plays to win a game like that,” Finch said. “But it really shouldn’t have come down to that.”
No, but that’s the position Minnesota put itself in via a disgusting offensive display over the final 12 minutes in which the Timberwolves went 4 for 18 from the field while committing six turnovers.
The Wolves offense — which hummed for three quarters — was stifled by Philadelphia’s zone. Minnesota moved the ball leisurely and settled for difficult, contested jumpers on the possessions where it actually a shot off.
It all started with a 4 on 1 fast break in which Jaylen Nowell turned it over trying to hit Rudy Gobert for a lob. The next trip down, Jaden McDaniels was called for a travel.
“From there, it was a little bit of an avalanche of mistakes and less than ideal shots,” Finch said.
Philadelphia — who was playing on the second night of a back to back and down starting guards James Harden and Tyrese Maxey — was also careless with the ball, committing eight turnovers over the final 12 minutes. But Joel Embiid powered the 76ers back with key shots.
As Minnesota’s lead started to dwindle, the Wolves seemed to tighten. It was a similar scene to what played out last Sunday in Cleveland in a game in which the Wolves led by 22 in the fourth quarter but were ahead by just two with eight seconds to play. On that night, Minnesota went 7 for 21 in the final frame.
In last year’s playoff series against Memphis, the Wolves led by double digits in three of their four losses. The late-game issues persist. Is the issue mental at this point?
“Maybe, I don’t know. Guys like Ant certainly aren’t afraid of the moment,” Finch said. “It’s just whether we can get quality looks for him. But I think anytime the game tightens up on you and you turn it over and you’re not playing well, it probably lays in the back of people’s minds.”