Stranger things have happened before in playoff races, but the Wolves’ 125-102 loss in Toronto on Wednesday night feels like the dagger in their sixth seed dreams.
With five games remaining, they now trail the Utah Jazz by 2.5 games to avoid the dreaded NBA Play-In Tournament—where anything is possible and failure is definitely an option—that includes teams with the 7th through 10th-highest winning percentages in each conference fighting for the last two spots.
“We seven seed right now,” said Anthony Edwards, who led the Wolves with 24 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 dimes on 10-17 shooting in the loss. He became the youngest player in NBA history to make 200 three-pointers in a season. “If it wasn’t for the play-in game, we’d be in the playoffs, but yeah, nah, we good. We still gonna be in the playoffs, I feel like.”
“Win one game.”
Head coach Chris Finch talked about winning as many games as possible and letting the chips fall as they may but for the second game in a row, they’ve totally flatlined in their sprint to the finish line. Their early mojo crumbled into pieces with each unforced turnover, slowly twisting their fortunes.
Gary Trent crushed them once again this season with 29 points on 95.4% true shooting. (Apple Valley!) OG Anunoby added 22 points on 84.6% TS and the Raptors hit 18-36 from deep. They sprinted up and down the court after turnovers and misses, absolutely slayed in transition to the tune of 27 points, and Pascal Siakam, who didn’t even play that well given his standards, added a triple-double with 12 points, 12 rebs, and 13 assists.
In reality, even as the Wolves went up 17 early in the second quarter and were flying around with purpose, Toronto is a place they simply never win; they haven’t beaten the Raptors there since 2004. Make that 17 consecutive losses and the Toronto blues in what is now the longest road losing streaks in one city. It’s a miserable streak that grows at the worst of times for a team that’s been determined to make the leap into the top 6 in the Western Conference playoffs. One that could not afford to take the L.
“It was really a matter of turnovers, that’s what turned the game,” said Finch. “We had so many, I mean, we had 11 in the first quarter. …. We didn’t do a very good job of reading their drives. When we collapsed, they kicked it out, they made the right play, and shot the ball extremely well.”
For those not keeping track at home, the 22 turnovers were the Wolves' second-most in a game this season. Half were from Towns (7) and Edwards (4). It’s the type of sloppy play that will drive any coach crazy. “We had a lot of turnovers that were just dumb,” Finch honestly assessed. “Just silly turnovers, throwing the ball out of bounds off outlet passes and stuff like that.”
When asked if the team is in a little bit of a funk right now, Finch didn’t expand all that much. “Yeah, a little bit,” he said, probably still frustrated with the way they came out rather lifeless in the third. Edwards agreed when asked the same question. But even if things are tough right now, everyone knows there’s no time for them to hang their heads or fall into a funk during the homestretch of the alluring and delightful 2022 season.
“We just gotta talk to each and have more conversations with each other,” Edwards concluded. It wasn’t exactly his usual upbeat approach that often has a way of alleviating concern but his words are something the team has hung their hat on this season—having an open, honest dialogue, camaraderie, and growing with each other instead of spiraling down the standings every time the road gets a little bit rugged.
Finch and his pal—Raptors coach Nick Nurse, whose staff he was on last season before being plucked away in a rare midseason move—might not have renewed their old rivalry in this one, but the two showed a similar approach in style that adds credence to those who believe Finch is right up there in the coaching ranks with the best of them like Nurse.
“It’s amazing how similar these two teams are,” said Jim Peterson. “Both teams have the same philosophies.” It’s just that Nurse and his Raptors executed a common strategy—to crash the offensive glass, score second-chance points, create points off turnovers, run in transition, hit threes, and throw seven different shades of defense at the opponents—much better on this night.
The Wolves punched first with a heavy dose of Karl-Anthony Towns driving and dunking to go with Ant threes before Towns eventually disappeared as they took him out of the game with Box + 1 coverage and double and triple teams. He finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. The Raptors punched back 10x harder. To close the half, Toronto went on a 39-20 run and there was no turning back once the onslaught continued after the break.
“It got away from us in the third,” said Edwards.
With the play-in game(s) seemingly in their future, they’ll now need to regroup and reassess what these last five games really mean. Is it time to get everyone as healthy as possible? Do they still try to run the table and pray for a serious downfall from Denver or Utah? What’s the best route to take with the cards they currently hold.
“We’re fighting, and these games ain’t going to get any easier,” Towns said in disappointment. He also only had 13 shots after a blistering offensive start, going from dunking on people’s heads to being schemed out of the game. With D’Angelo Russell’s (13 points on 3-15) continued shooting slump, the same recipe is destined to be used over and over again in the play-in and the playoffs.
Maybe that’s the real lesson in this loss if there’s anything new to learn—that they still need to figure out how to both ensure that Towns gets enough shots, especially from deep, and how to thrive when opponents throw everything they have at him begging everyone else to beat them.
“We have to get [KAT] more touches,” said Finch. “That’s on me.” It’s also on KAT to force the action when necessary.
Or maybe D’Lo goes off when the Wolves ultimately need him most and maybe there’s nothing really exceptional to be learned from an 18 three-pointer night from the scorching Raptors and all of those 22 turnovers that made everything difficult to control.
I guess that’s part of the fun on this wild ride.