Think back to the 2014-15 season for a minute. February 25 marked the Washington Wizards' last visit to the Target Center, but more importantly marked Kevin Garnett's first home game since returning to the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Wolves destroyed the Wizards, marking their biggest victory of last season and the team celebrated Garnett's return in style against a disjointed Washington team.
Fast forward back to tonight, where the young Wolves never quite got close enough in a 102-96 loss. Karl-Anthony Towns had 14 points and 15 rebounds in the loss, and in an unusual turn of events, Ricky Rubio led the Wolves in scoring with 22 to go with six rebounds and, also unusually, only three assists. Every member of the Wolves' starting lineup was at least neutral in single-game plus-minus, with Zach LaVine the lowest at 0.
The problem continues to reside with what happens when the Wolves' starting lineup departs the floor, as the five starters cannot play 48 minutes every night. The Wolves took an early 12 point lead, and led by eight when the first substitutions occurred (Rubio and Andrew Wiggins making way for Tyus Jones and Shabazz Muhammad). From that point, the Wizards' made an 11-3 run to tie the game, and the Wolves led by only three after the first quarter.
Even the starters certainly still have their problems. Their competence on the offensive end is matched (and necessary) by the weaknesses that continue to plague the Wolves on the defensive end. Neither Wiggins nor LaVine can really be considered plus defenders, especially when opposing backcourts have players of the quality of John Wall (14 points and 12 assists) and Bradley Beal (led all scorers with 26 off the bench). Wall could get to the hoop whenever he wanted, no matter who was on him. His speed is unbelievable.
The Wizards continued to chip away at the Wolves with little runs, 7-0 here, 9-2 there, and the Wolves did not execute well enough on the offensive end to match their defensive flaws. The Wizards' lead at the half had swelled to six, and while the Wolves made a run in the third quarter to tie the game back up around a three from Rubio and aggressive play from Towns and LaVine, they were never in control of the game.
The defensive control continues to appear at its weakest at the ends of quarters, which have long been documented as a problem this season. The Wolves had tied the game at 77 with 1:28 left in the third. The rest of the possessions in the quarter: Beal 3-pointer, Payne missed jumper, Wizards turnover, Wolves turnover, Dudley layup, LaVine missed 3, Sessions 3-pointer to finish the quarter. Just another little 8-0 run to turn a tied game into a lead the Wizards wouldn't relinquish again.
The short story of this game was simple. The Wolves had 19 turnovers to the Wizards' 17. They had only 17 assists to the Wizards' 25. The Wizards went 11-29 from beyond the arc to the Wolves' 5-14. It was not beyond the Wolves to win this game, but they simply did not execute at the level they must to beat better teams.
Reflection leads to looking forward. Kevin Garnett did not play in this game, and questions continue to be asked about whether or not he will play again this season. The temporary joy and excitement of his return is long gone. Randy Wittman, through interesting lineup changes and bringing Wall back against weaker lineups, outcoached Sam Mitchell's attempt to match those changes. Wittman's team is worse this season than last, but he has attempted to diversify his offense to incorporate more threes. He succeeded this game.
When these teams meet again next season, one wonders how much will be different for both of these rosters. The Wizards are ninth in the Eastern Conference. Next season, should the Wizards be of the same quality, the Wolves should expect to win this game, if they improve as everyone expects they should. Now, as ever, the question is how the Wolves get there.