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The Timberwolves Have a Pressure Problem

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Minnesota has had a tough time in big moments this season.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Timberwolves had a lot to play for. Not only was it a chance to reach .500 for the first time since early December, but the game was a battle of pride.

After a messy breakup with the organization 13 games into the season, current Sixer Jimmy Butler was waiting eagerly for the Wolves in the City of Brotherly Love. Next to him was All-Star center Joel Embiid, whose long-standing rivalry with Karl-Anthony Towns has been well publicized. This was no average regular season game. As Jeff Teague pointed out in his post-game comments, this was one that they all had marked down.

Minnesota had entered the pressure cooker.

This was their chance to show that their early-season trade return was worth it. That the assets (Dario Saric and Robert Covington) they received made it easier to forget the elite-level play that Butler provided (though Covington continues to miss time with injury.) It was Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins’ chance to exact some revenge for having their mentality called out publicly by their former leader.

Instead, the result was the complete opposite. Minnesota wilted like a plucked flower that had been left in the sun without water, while Philadelphia and their star players comfortably cruised through the game with a smiles on their faces. When the horror show was over, Philly had dropped 149 points on the Wolves, strolling to a 42-point thrashing.

“We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and say we had our ass kicked today and we had to be ready,” Towns told The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski after the embarrassing loss.

It was good to see the players own up to the loss. However, it wasn’t just the Sixers grudge match where the Timberwolves failed to live up to their playoff-level expectations. They have struggled in big pressure moments for the entire season.

Against teams who are currently in playoff spots for either conference? Minnesota owns a sub-par 9-13 record. If you take out wins against Oklahoma City and the surprisingly decent Brooklyn Nets, that record drops to a ghoulish 5-13. In games where they have a chance to really prove their worth the Wolves have rarely been able to put their best foot forward.

Perhaps the fans and front office’s expectations are too high. With Towns being the one and only established star on the team, maybe they are bringing a knife to the Western Conference gunfight. That’s entirely possible, but with a roster consisting of two max contract youngsters, a host of veterans on good money, and an interim coach who is coaching for his spot, rebuilding isn’t feasible. This team needs to win games, and at 21-23 (11th in the Western Conference) they need to do it now.

It’s not like they haven’t had the chance to grab those wins either. According to NBA stats’ clutch metric, which is defined by games that are within five points with less than five minutes left, Minnesota have featured in 24 crunch time situations, which is tied for the ninth most in the league.

In those 24 chances, Minnesota has a 41.7 percent win record (10-14), which is the 10th worst mark league-wide. They convert just 40.4 percent of their field goals and 29.5 percent of their 3-point attempts, compared to 45 percent and 35.5 percent for total games. It’s not unusual for teams to have a harder time getting buckets when the defense really tightens up, but the Timberwolves have had an especially rough go of it.

There has been some clutch moments of pure elation, make no mistake. Andrew Wiggins’ game-winning layup against the tough defense of Oklahoma City stands out, as does Karl-Anthony Towns’ swatting Anthony Davis’ potential go-ahead 3-pointer. For the most part though, Minnesota have faltered when faced with late-game adversity.

The one that would probably stick in the mind of a lot of fans is last week’s disastrous finish against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks. Down by two points with the game on the line, Jeff Teague makes a nice pass to Dario Saric in the corner, who passes up an open triple to Derrick Rose, who has an even better look at the game-winner. Despite shooting a blistering 45.7 percent from behind the arc this season, Rose inexplicably turns down the shot and opts for a driving runner that is denied by Maxi Kleber — along with any hopes of a crucial victory.

As you can see in the clip below, it was a head-scratching way to end another poor pressure moment:

Throughout the season, these kinds errors have plagued a Minnesota team that teeters between great and horrendous at the drop of a hat. No matter what competition they are facing, nobody — perhaps not even the players — know what version of the team will show up.

One thing is glaringly obvious though, this Timberwolves squad has problems when it is placed under the pump, and they aren’t going to fulfill their goals until it is patched up. Only time will tell if they coach Ryan Saunders can use the Philadelphia beat down as fuel to propel his team to higher levels. For now, soul searching and a redemption win against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night would be a good place to start.