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Pistons 100, Wolves 97: It Hurts to Lose That Way

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That’s what Jimmy Butler said.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Entering Sunday night, the Wolves sat at 10-5, third in the stout Western Conference. They appeared to be ahead of schedule for a team with three new starters (Butler, Teague, and Gibson) learning to mesh with the franchises two prized number one picks (Towns and Wiggins).

It’s been a positive start to the season by all accounts, and one game shouldn’t alter any opinion about anything all that much. But this is the second time in five games they’ve laid a dud in the fourth quarter to take a loss—the ugly game in Phoenix where they were outscored 33-22 being the first time—after the Detroit Pistons shelled them 29-17 in the fourth to win 100-97.

The first loss on the road in Detroit this season can be chalked up to not having Jimmy Butler (or proper wing depth to handle his absence) and an atrocious exhibit of How To Not Play Transition Defense. The loss tonight was quite different; the Wolves were in the drivers seat through three quarters but then the offense stalled out in the fourth in large part due to numerous, seemingly avoidable, turnovers that kept the Pistons within reach. They seemed to give them more hope each time, like maybe there’s a chance they could avoid an 0-3 road trip and steal the game.

Aside from a collection of unforced turnovers early in the quarter, the offense took a turn for the worse and the ball started to stick. There was little of the crisp ball movement that helped build the 80-71 lead after three quarters, and when the Wolves don’t share the ball offensively it seems to trickle down into their defensive execution in a very negative way.

Jimmy Butler attempted only one shot in the final quarter after entering the fourth with 24 points, which was disappointing and eye-opening given how he was seriously dominating the game in basically every aspect (final line in 42 minutes: 26/10/4/5). Later in the fourth, as the game tightened up, Avery Bradley hit two left corner threes to keep Detroit within striking distance. Then the Wolves’ inability to stop the Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond 1/5 pick-and-roll in clutch time (the last five minutes with a five point differential or less) became very apparent. They did not have an answer for that action. Stan Van Gundy and the Pistons knew it.

Drummond, the behemoth center nobody in the league can seem to move out of the paint, finished with 20 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, and two blocks. He left the game in the second half after hurting this elbow but re-entered later in the night after getting checked out by the Pistons’ medical staff; the issue was said to be with his funny bone and nothing serious.

“[Reggie] did an amazing job of getting guys open,” Drummond said afterwards. “Avery hits some threes. We got a hook shot in the paint and [Reggie] scored the rest of the way.”

The Pistons went to their pick-and-roll action over and over again down the stretch and Jackson (16 points, 8 assists) was decided he was goint to hit every shot; Detroit finished the game making their final nine attempts, the last miss occurring with 7:47 left. There was no defensive resistance to close out the game.

“They scored, we didn’t get stops,” said Butler afterwards. “I mean we all saw it. You know, they made shots, you know that’s just part of this league. It just hurts to lose that way and what can you say ... you can’t win them all.”

Butler was fouled on a three-point attempt with 6.2 seconds left with the Wolves down three, but after hitting the first two free throws he missed the last one and Tobias Harris (18 points and nine rebounds on 18 true shooting attempts) was fouled. After Harris drilled both, Butler got a pretty good look at a three at the buzzer but the shot rimmed out. He did his best to come up big in the clutch, and while it stinks he missed the free throw to tie the game, in reality it shouldn’t have come to that in the first place.

“I just missed one,” Butler said after being asked if Jackson interrupted his rhythm before the third free throw that would’ve tied the game at 98. “It happens. Everybody misses free throws. I don’t like to miss them, nobody does, but he had nothing to do with that, I just missed one.”

Putting that free throw aside, the fourth quarter execution on both ends was frustratingly bad. The Wolves gave the Pistons too many extra possessions and couldn’t find a way to get a stop down the stretch. Some folks might point to the heavy minutes, concluding the team was tired when the game was on the line. That’s certainly possible. It’s also true the bench looked terrible in their first stint and Thibs has no patience for the second unit when they are playing crappy basketball. There’s no doubt, however, that 42 minutes for Butler and Wiggins (plus 40 for Teague and 38 for Towns) is too much before flying out to Charlotte tonight for the back-to-back tomorrow.

“It just hurts to lose at home,” said Butler. “We got to have the ones at home.”

Other notable stats and things...

Wiggins had two steals and three blocks. That’s the sort of defensive activity needed from him. The Wolves were beat at the free throw line, which rarely happens. Getting freebies, as well as not allowing opponents to hit free throws, is probably the team’s greatest strength. Detroit went 14-20, compared to 12-18 for Minnesota. Pistons also won the three-point margin, 8-5. I always put the magic number from deep at 10 (that’s asking for so much, I know) since the Wolves are obviously a much more successful squad when hitting treys. Nemanja Bjelica went back to his old ways tonight, passing up multiple clean looks from beyond the arc, instead making an extra pass to Wiggins in the corner or going to his drive and dish game. LET IT FLY 3JELICA! He shouldn’t be passing up shots.

Jamal Crawford left the game with a migraine and did not return after 7 minutes of play (six points on six shots). Shabazz Muhammad remains a wildly negative player on the floor and should be, but of course he will not be, replaced by Marcus Georges-Hunt immediately to help the second unit. Jeff Teague did nothing well and couldn’t stop Jackson when it mattered. Karl-Anthony Towns had 16/9/3 on 13 shots and two free throws. When things went dry in the fourth quarter, it felt like the Wolves should have tried to lean on Towns a bit more than they did. They’re still going for long stretches in every game without getting him a touch on the block, which seems odd. I wish they would run more offense through him.

Angry Thibs

Tom Thibodeau had one of shortest press conferences in recent memory, clearly steaming from the disappointing let down in the fourth. His responses were short, non-descriptive, and pretty much on brand. Thibs’ messaging never changes, and he really wasn’t interested in discussing the details about this loss, though he’s usually pretty good about it. (This loss obviously really pissed him off.)

“Turnovers got us,” he said in response to a question about the fourth quarter offense and ball movement. Was it mental mistakes tonight? “Turnovers,” he said again, obviously irritated (rightfully so) over dropping the game.

Is there anything the Wolves could have done specifically to avoid those turnovers? “You have to be at your best. The fourth quarter is different, intensity is different,” he said, like he has many times before. (This felt like a flashback to last season.) “You have to get stops down at the other end.” Then Thibs re-emphasized that same message.

“You have to play for 48 minutes. We didn’t play our best in the fourth quarter; the fourth quarter is different.”

That’s great and all, but how does Jimmy Butler only get two shots in the fourth, after putting on a show and torching the Pistons in his first 30 minutes on the court? “They were blitzing him, yeah.” Thibs was angry after the Wolves dropped one of those probably should have won games and, well, that was that.

Tomorrow brings a new test.

Next up: Charlotte on the road Monday night. Must stop Kemba Walker and co.