MINNEAPOLIS — There was a common sentiment during the preseason: an early schedule littered with favorable home games would help the Wolves start fast and furious in pursuit of their playoff dreams. That sounded wonderful in theory.
As Monday night reaffirmed, facing an Orlando Magic squad stumbling into town with a 1-6 record, there are no easy wins. A fourth quarter of doom resulted in a 43-18 beat down, led by Cole Anthony (31 points, 9 rebounds, 8 dimes) and rookie Franz Wagner (28 points) as the Wolves fell to 3-3 in the 115-97 loss.
“A few games this season, we’ve been there in the fourth quarter, and that’s been when the other team’s taking their stride,” said Anthony. “Tonight, we did a great job of building up that lead in that fourth quarter and then not letting them get back in the game, but instead extending our lead, going and eventually getting that dub.”
Anthony was extremely complimentary of Wagner after the 8th overall stole the show with his already advanced game, featuring a 46.3% three-point shot that demands respect for him to break down defenses off the dribble. “This tells you a lot about Franz [Wagner]. He just knows how to play; I wish I was doing that last year, shoot. Man, I wish I was. Franz can really hoop. He really understands the game, has a great feel, and is a heck of a basketball player. It’s awesome because I think he can get a heck of a lot better.”
THERE IS NO TIME to get comfortable if the New Wolves don’t want to fall in line with the Old Wolves. As they’ve done plenty of times before, a strong victory against a formidable opponent often inexplicably leaves the Wolves feeling themselves, poised for another letdown. They beat the defending champs in Milwaukee last week before playing a potent Denver team right up until the final buzzer only two days ago in a close loss. If two or three possessions go differently, it’s back-to-back top-notch wins. But even if the Wolves have shown they can play with the best, they can play with the worst, too. Monday night displayed that.
Aside from Karl-Anthony Towns (23 points, 16 rebounds, 6 dimes) and Anthony Edwards (24 points, 6 rebs, 3 dimes), they got very little support. Naz Reid scored 10 quick points off the bench before hurting his shoulder on a hard football screen from Mo Bamba in the lane that was deemed a common foul. Jarred Vanderbilt had 10 points, 8 rebounds, Malik Beasley had 11 points on 16 shots, often clanking short from deep in his 32 minutes, and D’Angelo Russel left the game with a right ankle injury after shooting 1-8 in 17 minutes.
The offense again looked lost, albeit filled with many good looks that clanked. Most of the commentary postgame surrounding the offense was summarized as Good Process, Bad Results. If there’s any silverling to a putrid home loss against the Magic, it’s that mostly good shots don’t seem to be falling for the Wolves right now and through time, and variance, the offense will work itself out. That’s the positive spin. The negative one is how often their offense has gone dry early this season and how they still fall victim to past success, no matter how minor, as Anthony Edwards said postgame after finishing the night with a team-high 24 points (accounting for his fourth 20+ point game of the season) to go with six rebounds, three assists, and two steals.
“I feel like we’re still stuck on the Milwaukee game,” said Edwards. “I feel like that’s our problem right now. Came out of there with a win and we think we good now but it’s just one game.” The question is: Can the Wolves buy into this same mindset, that one signature win doesn’t mean much if they let it go to their head to negatively impact future games?
“I feel like we got swag, but we kinda got too much swag right now. Know what I’m sayin’? Like, we think we done done something and we ain’t did nothing. Tomorrow I’m going to talk to the team and see what we on here for sure.”
A loss to the Magic was an all too familiar infuriating meltdown, ringing an alarm loudly throughout the building, screaming this is not a playoff team. Maybe this was an early-season speed bump, and perhaps the sixth game of the season will be more wake-up call and false alarm rather than a sign of what's to come, filled with shooting variance and free throw discrepancies more than anything else. The flip side, though, is this is more likely who the Wolves actually are—a decent team easily rattled in the fourth and unable to overcome massive runs, suggesting another long season of letdowns.
“It was one of those situations where our lack of shotmaking is bleeding over into our defensive intensity,” said coach Chris Finch. “We can’t have that. ... We’ve been emphasizing both sides of the ball, but we had slippage tonight. You could see in the beginning, our defensive intensity wasn’t quite where it needed to be. The ball went wherever it wanted to.”
Finch was clearly displeased with the execution that saw mistake after mistake all through the night. There was no rhyme to the offense he’s been trying to get back on track, nor a cohesive defensive unit that has carried his team early on when buckets are hard to come by. He was extremely disappointed in the result of the fourth quarter. “It’s one of those situations where our lack of shot-making was bleeding over into our defensive intensity,” said Finch. “We can’t have that. We played really good defense no matter what’s been going out there on the floor, but today we kinda let go of the rope a little bit there and we, you know, then they got to the point where they came and made everything they threw up.”
Edwards talked about the bevy of clanks. “We just couldn’t hit nothing ... that’s all I got. We just can’t hit no shots right now,” he said. Is it tough to stay patient, waiting on shots to fall at some point? “I feel like we good, we still good.”
“It’s one game. If your confidence is shot after one game then you don’t need to be playing basketball, said Edward. “We’re getting wide-open catch-and-shoot threes. We just aint hittin’ it.”
When asked about letting missed shots affect the team's defense, Edwards said, ”We just wasn’t pressuring the ball, wasn’t playing physical, wasn’t executing the game plan. Mental mistakes. We can’t let our offense affect our defense. I feel like that played a big role tonight. We wasn’t hitting shots, I felt like that’s why our defense got bad.”
Ultimately, when the fourth rolled around, the Wolves' energy was off. They weren’t playing like the team that beat Milwaukee last week or stuck with the Nuggets two nights ago at Target Center. When the fourth came around and Winning Time hung in the balance, their Good Vibes shrunk. They defaulted back to last year's team with no confidence.
“Especially in the fourth quarter, everybody was down,” said Edwards.
“I told them when I got checked back in at like the eight-minute mark, ‘let’s pick the energy back up.’ Everybody seemed like they were sad like the game ain’t over bruh, we down nine points. Eight minutes left! You know what I mean? I try to keep the spirits up. I don’t let too much bother me within the game, I try to go out there and get a win. I mean, I felt like the spirit was down so let’s get the energy up but it never got to where it needed to be and they came out with the win.”
If there’s anywhere to go from here, Edwards's view of how to deal with a bad loss should provide the right pathway. “I put it behind me,” he says. “I can’t be stuck on one.”
They can’t be stuck in Milwaukee or paralyzed by recent losses to Denver or Orlando. The desperate Clippers are coming to town on Wednesday night for a home back-to-back and there’s no time to waste.