MINNEAPOLIS — In front of a sellout crowd at Target Center, the Wolves gave the defending champion Warriors everything they could handle on Monday night. It still wasn't enough as Golden State walked away victorious, 109-104, after losing Saturday to the Spurs.
"Every time we've lost we've won the next time out, so it's a pretty good sign," Steve Kerr said before the game. "Now we're in that situation again with a tough loss the other night and we have to have a good effort tonight. We know this is a potent young team that's going to really give us a test tonight because this will be one of the biggest games for them all year. They know they're not going to the playoffs, but a win over us would be a pretty big deal, so we expect their best."
There is no question the Wolves gave the Warriors their best effort when all was said and done. While a win over the Warriors would have been "a really good win on our resume" as Shabazz Muhammad said afterwards, this was still one of the most positive performances of the season by a young squad still sorting through their developmental stage. The fact that nobody seemed satisfied with the result felt like a promising sign of things to come down the road. Aspirations remain high even in the midst of defeat and there were no moral victories simply because they gave the most feared team in the Association a run for their money and almost stole the game.
"We had a chance to win the game, that's all I'm thinking about right now," Sam Mitchell said. "There are no moral victories in professional sports. We had some opportunities and I just think we had some lapses in focus at times where we allowed them to get some threes in transition. That's something that we really talked about the last day and a half - about taking that away. We had those mental lapses and they make you pay. They're used to this, they're used to being in tough games. I'm proud of the way we executed our game plan.
I thought we missed some shots that we normally make, but they're the world champs. They made plays at the end and we didn't. It's like I told our guys, we've got to learn from these things. If you're going to be a playoff team and eventually make the playoffs, you've got to be focused before they finish. You can't have mental lapses, you can't have mental mistakes. You're going to have enough physical mistakes that come with the game, but mental mistakes, you've got to stay focused and locked in. I just thought we had them at the wrong time, and with a team like that, every time you lose focus for one play, they just bury you with a three, they just make you pay. I thought we played well, I thought we played well enough to give ourselves an excellent chance to win and I'm proud of the guys for that. We're young and that's what young players do, they just make some tough mistakes."
Draymond Green scored a team-high 24 points on 10-13 shooting to lead Golden State. He added nine rebounds, six assists, three steals, three blocks and played Karl-Anthony Towns extremely physical. It typically doesn't do much for me to complain about the referees, it is what it is and bad calls go both ways over the course of an NBA game, but when Green is setting illegal screens throughout the contest, basically shoving Wolves' players out of the way, it gets to be pretty annoying when they consistently go uncalled. I don't remember one time he was whistled for an offensive foul. On one hand I'm all for crafty screen setting like Kevin Garnett has been doing his entire career, but when Green is blatantly pushing opposing defenders to create space for his counterparts it gets to become tiresome to watch go ignored by the referees. There were at least three obvious illegal screens tonight by my count. They weren't even subtle. The crowd, and the Wolves, reacted strongly each time.
Karl-Anthony Towns finished with 24 points (11-19) and 11 rebounds in his rookie-leading 41st double-double of the season. Now that I'm done ranting about Green's illegal screens, I can talk about how amazing his defense is up close and personal. Towns ran into the Great Wall of Draymond a collection of times in the lane tonight and Green walked away with a few timely wins. When matched up against one another, Green truly made Towns earn every bucket.
He also guarded Andrew Wiggins, who had an all-around strong game (25 points, five rebounds, four assists, one steal, and one block) before struggling with his shot in the fourth quarter (2-9). On his final shot attempt with 15 seconds remaining in the game, Wiggins missed an 18-foot turnaround fadeaway that would have tied the contest at 105. Both Mitchell and Wiggins felt good about the look when asked about the shot in their interviews, but there is no denying the difficulty in hitting that particular attempt. Wiggins is the teams closer at this point and has proven to be capable early in his professional career, but matched up against one of the league's elite defenders in Green — while his shot had run cold in the fourth and his legs were likely tired after logging major minutes while chasing Klay Thompson around the court all night — one most ask themselves if that was the best the Wolves could have done with the most critical possession of the game. It's always easy to second-guess missed opportunities though.
"It wasn't the best shot, you know, but I was confident I was going to make it," Wiggins said. "I just went to my strong hand and tried to get away from the defender and kind of felt like I was in a tight area, but I couldn't really finish it off today. Usually I can make plays but tonight I didn't close out the game for my team."
Ricky Rubio played one of his best games of the season against Steph Curry. The Chef had 19 points on 6-17 shooting to go with 11 assists, seven rebounds, three steals, and five turnovers. El Unicorn gave him everything he had on his way to 20 points, 11 assists, and four steals in nearly 33 minutes. Rubio went 5-9 from the field (3-7 from three) and a perfect 7-7 from the free throw line. Over the last 17 games, Rubio is now shooting 22-56 (.393) from 3-point range. Tonight was his franchise-leading 51st game with 4+ steals (Garnett, 50) and the 10th this season. While he had six turnovers on some uncharacteristic passes, he probably created more turnovers by Golden State with his pesky defense, per the usual.
"When you lose, you're always mad, but I still think we did good things tonight," Rubio said. "We played a really good game, but we made some mistakes that when you're playing against the best team in the league, they make you pay. It's a good learning process. The atmosphere, it was a playoff game. We controlled our tempo pretty well. We can take a lot of good notes out of this game, but at the same time, we know that we've got to learn that when we're playing good, don't get too excited and keep doing what we're doing."
Zach LaVine finished with 19 points on 7-13 shooting (2-5 from 3-point range) and remains hot offensively since the All-Star break. LaVine is averaging 18.1 points on 50.2% shooting (45.1% from deep!) in 16 games. I was inspired by some of his defensive possessions tonight, particularly the way he stopped one Harrison Barnes transition opportunity in the second half along with some of his excellent switches on the perimeter through screens. The Wolves were switching on every screen and the game plan seemed to work to the point where it's something they should probably employ more often and the rest of the NBA should try to attempt against Golden State. They made life difficult for the Splash Brothers tonight (11-31) which is an extremely uncommon occurrence these days. Klay Thompson was a perfect 5-5 from deep, but 0-9 from inside the arc and finished with 17 points in 30 minutes.
"Coaches did a great job of really getting a game plan with us," Muhammad said. "We really just tried to switch out and make [Stephen Curry] drive to the basket. It's so crazy, it's usually the opposite, you want a guy shooting. We want him driving and we really played some good defense on him. Other guys made plays at the end that really hurt us and all in all I thought we played well and we competed."
Tonight's win was Golden State's 63rd of the season, moving them to 63-7 overall — the best record in NBA history through 70 games. Golden State is now 31-7 on the road and remain undefeated at home in their pursuit to surpass the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (72-10) for the best record in league history. The Wolves played one of their best games of the season and ultimately that still wasn't enough.
"We've got to play 48 minutes," Towns said in the locker room as he and his teammates digested another close home loss. "That just re-emphasizes that we've got to play the whole game at a high level. A possession here or there against a great team like today could be the possession that costs you the game."
There are no moral victories in professional sports, as Sam Mitchell said. Still, the Wolves can absolutely build on these types of performances to prepare themselves for crucial moments down the line. The key is getting effort like tonight on a consistent basis and not playing up or down to the level of opponents as seen throughout the season. We will find out how the team responds on Wednesday at home against the dysfunctional Sacramento Kings.