Nothing good can last forever, as the Minnesota Timberwolves’ four-game win streak has come to a close as they fell last night to the Phoenix Suns in Kevin Durant’s home debut 107-100.
There were no stray puddles during warm ups and it was clear the whole arena that Charles Barkley had once launched a tirade against was full and ready to see the unveiling of their three headed beast of an offense at home. KD would play.
This was an extremely close game while Durant was kept under wraps in the first half. He did not stay quiet for long and the Suns pulled away with a 15-point run to end the third quarter. Here’s how it all happened:
The first quarter started a question in many fans’ thoughts: “when is KD gonna do something?” In an extremely impressive showing, the Wolves wing corps of Jaden McDaniels, Kyle Anderson, and Karl Anthony-Towns (along with a sprinkling of Naz Reid and Rudy Gobert) managed to keep KD scoreless for an entire first NBA quarter, a feat that had only been achieved by three teams in his career.
Through an impressive blend of drop coverage and dogged defending, Durant was kept to an impossible empty 0/6 shooting in the first quarter. It would take until halfway through the second quarter for Durant to finally get on the board, splitting two attempts from the free throw line, and heading into the half with angry thoughts.
If KD was buckled in, then how did the Suns manage to go into the first recess up one and survive a late first half Minnesota run to keep the score close going to halftime? Well, simply, Devin Booker went Berserk.
While KAT was bombing threes in the first quarter, attempting a staggering seven of them in the first half, it was Booker dominating the mid range and getting to the basket with ease in transition to keep scores level. When KD was subbed out due to his aforementioned minutes restriction, it was Booker who took a handful of bench pieces on a run to hold off the heroic aspirations of one Naz Reid. When Deandre Ayton hit foul trouble and Chris Paul’s age showed in coach Monty Williams’ rotations, it was once again Devin Booker who came to their rescue. KAT’s former college teammate scored eleven points in the first quarter but created what felt like an unending onslaught to keep Phoenix alive.
However, the Wolves left the first half with a lead of three points, thanks in no small part to Towns’ twenty point, eight rebound outburst, which requires a couple of notes on what went right in the first twenty-four minutes, and went went so terribly wrong in the second half.
KAT at the half:— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) March 30, 2023
20 PTS / 8 REB / 1 AST / 7-12 FG pic.twitter.com/2ieT6lwlDc
Winston Churchill once said “I have never developed indigestion from eating my own words.” Who knows who ate what but it’s worth mentioning that multiple players hit the injury report today with a stomach bug. Taurean Prince was kept out. Anderson and Anthony Edwards played through it. Those differences could definitely be felt in the first quarter where Slo Mo and Ant started, well, slow, and Prince’s spacing was absent for a bench unit that needs it
The Wolves and Suns both played extremely fast with a huge focus on transition layups. The Wolves committed nine unforced turnovers and ten total in the first half. You’re not going to do well when you give the ball away like that. Just when it feels like this team had turned the corner after the Sacramento game, they started playing loose.
Despite the fact that both teams were moving the ball so quickly, the score at halftime was an unexciting 51-48. This was not for lack of trying. No one was shooting particularly well on either team, once again showing that this team’s identity is one of unyielding defense (which is good) and offensive inconsistency and struggles (which is bad).
Lastly, Josh Okogie was fantastic, starting the game off with a no look interception of a rogue pass to KAT and attacking the rim in a way that brings smiles to the fans of Nonstop who still fondly remember his time here.
Sigh, now for where it all went wrong.
After returning from halftime down three, the Wolves immediately went on a run to start their oft maligned third quarter and burst out to a ten point lead. Before this point, no team had led by more than five.
This should’ve been the start to a lead that would push the Wolves until the end of the game. Instead, it resulted in complacency that meant that after reaching said ten point lead, the Wolves would be outscored by seventeen whole points to close the third quarter. This immaturity was punctuated with KAT fouling a Booker triple at the horn. Just brutal, brutal stuff for a team that needs every win going forward.
While the game became closer at times in the fourth quarter, the Wolves would never take a lead again and the game would end after a commanding final twenty minutes from the team that has been past the first round of the playoffs, during which they did what was needed to win. Ayton dealt with foul trouble, but Bismack Biyombo played like he was back in Toronto, blocking shots and finishing dunks. Okogie took the best parts of who he was in the Twin Cities and trimmed off the fat and gristle. This was a team that was serious about winning. And a fast way to lose to a prepared and well-managed team is to think we’ve already beaten them before you have.
Where this quarter fully crushed the Wolves was a sequence where, within three consecutive plays, Kyle Anderson earned two fouls and, seemingly to support his teammate, McDaniels shoved Durant out of the post to earn his fourth foul. While the Wolves may not have gotten the best whistle (more on this later), it certainly was compounded by poor decisions of when to get ultra-physical after already villainizing the refs.
The Folly of Man:
The fourth quarter was a bad experience as soon as it began. Naz Reid attempted to throw down a salacious dunk, only to be hit in the face by both hands of Biyombo. He fell hard and landed entirely on his left wrist. Despite clearly being in a ton of pain, Reid took both free throws, made one, and shockingly stayed in the game. He said he was going to be okay postgame.
From here on out, the Wolves stopped being able to punish Bismack as they had done earlier in the game. Reid had been fantastic before this, but fell slightly into the shadows, continuing to cradle that left wrist which will likely be a storyline going forward.
It was here where Durant started to heat up and the Wolves could do nothing to stop him. He finished with only sixteen points on 5/18 shooting, but even an average Durant was miles better than the ghost he had been at first. And after a couple of threes, a few midranges, and a couple of free throws, he had finished his home debut with a win and the Suns remain undefeated when KD, CP3, and Booker all play.
The Wolves did continue to find strengths to attack, creating offensive rebounds and second chance points opportunities in a frantic attempt to stop the bleeding, but just couldn’t score any of them. Ant scored 31 but it felt like less. KAT scored five in the second half. Gobert had more fouls than made field goals, as did Jaden. This felt like the antithesis of the hyped up, enjoyable, winning-focused Wolves we had seen for the past few weeks. Simple mistakes were made. Tempers flared. Shots were missed. Which leads us to the final topic of the night: the refs.
I understand this team getting angry about the lack of calls. The question of “what does Ant have to do to get a whistle?” is a fair one. However, this has been a consistent question all year and the Wolves continue to let their own self pity and victimization to get in the way of winning games. There’s getting a bad whistle and then there’s goading the refs after a missed call and setting yourself up for failure. Early in the season, I would’ve called this the former. Now, I’m not as sure.
Minnesota saw all relevant rivals win on a day when they lost, with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Suns, and Los Angeles Lakers all picking up wins. The dreams of a top six seed may be dead, but if not, they’re on life support.
The Wolves are back in action in a must game win on Friday against the Lakers. With only a half game lead over D’Angelo Russell’s new team (and the New Orleans Pelicans behind them), this is a game that could decide the Timberwolves’ playoff spot. Win, and the hopes of skipping the play-in are alive again. Lose, and you may need to win two straight to make it into the final sixteen.
As the Wolves themselves say...
see you Friday. pic.twitter.com/0t2TTAZy8b— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) March 30, 2023
The Morning After:
It is now the 30th of March and cooler heads have prevailed. Rudy Gobert's post game comments must be discussed. Between expletives, Gobert claimed that the refs had been attempting to rigging games for the more popular teams, specifically listing the Warriors, Kings, and Suns (the Wolves' last three opponents). While these types of comments have been echoed often in the past few weeks, the fact remains that Devin Booker shot fifteen free throws, surpassing the Wolves' team total but three. The Lakers lead the league in free throw differential by two hundred or so. The Kings are in second.
Here's Rudy Gobert commenting on the officiating not just tonight but overall as it pertains to the Timberwolves. Referred to it as "disrespectful," among other things. Full quote for context: https://t.co/RUeHs4JePL pic.twitter.com/CSHT6pPH1w— Chris Hine (@ChristopherHine) March 30, 2023
A couple of weeks ago, Phoenix coach Monty Williams complained about the whistle his squad had gotten. Today, he was on the other end of that Following suit from Rudy, Chris Finch tore into the zebras.
Great stuff here from Chris Finch.— Kyle Theige (@KyleTheige) March 30, 2023
This team is angry and I can't blame them. There were some flat out awful calls last night. While it's true that speaking out like this can result in a Twitter post about lost sleep or a Suns-like increase in attempts, it can also have the reverse effect. On March 9th, Fred Van Vleet went on his now infamous rant about Ben Taylor and the officiating the Toronto Raptors were seeing. Before his Homerian oratory, the Raptors were averaging about twenty five free throws a game. Since then, the Raptors are averaging five less charity shots a game. They've lost two of their last nine by single digits.
The Wolves will look to bounce back on Friday against a Lakers team right on their heels in the playoff race. I hope the Wolves are all prepared for a foul difference there as well because, if they're not, they'll complain their way into a loss they simply cannot afford to take.
The Wolves return home for a monster home game against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers on Friday night at 7 PM CT. You can catch the tip on Bally Sports North and NBA TV.
Minnesota currently holds a 0.5 game lead over the L.A. for the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference.
never stopped battling.— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) March 30, 2023
Ant - 31 PTS / 6 AST / 1 BLK / 1 STL
KAT - 25 PTS / 8 REB / 2 AST
Naz - 15 PTS / 6 REB / 2 AST / 1 BLK pic.twitter.com/ffNUj4gJ8A