Timberwolves can't close late in loss to Memphis

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  • Chris Finch
    American basketball player-coach

Jan. 14—The Timberwolves are like a golfer trying to shave strokes off their handicap right now.

That's how coach Chris Finch put it, and the analogy feels pretty apt after Minnesota's 116-108 loss in Memphis, as the Grizzlies tallied their 11th straight victory.

"When you first start to play golf it's pretty easy to shave points off your handicap in a hurry," Finch said.

That's what the Wolves have done through the first half of the season. Through experience and a more committed approach to the defensive end, Minnesota has gone from a cellar dweller to a near lock to make the Western Conference play-in. But the Timberwolves are aiming higher. They want to be a top-six seed. They want to try to win a playoff series.

That's more difficult, as Memphis again reminded them Thursday.

"But when you want to go from a seven to a six (handicap), it's pretty hard to do, and it's all about the attention to details," Finch said. "It's all about the small things. It's all about the winning plays, and that's where it starts and that's where you got to be better at and you're going to be in close games and that's going to win you games and that's right now not what we're doing."

Exhibit A was the stretch run Thursday. The Timberwolves went toe to toe with the hottest team in the NBA, but they fell short because they committed three turnovers in succession — an Anthony Edwards throwaway and two offensive fouls by Karl-Anthony Towns — that allowed a one-point Grizzlies' lead in the final two minutes to balloon to eight.

There were other examples regarding a lack of attention to the details. Minnesota gave up 22 fast-break points to the Grizzlies (30-14), two nights after the Pelicans scored 28 points in transition in knocking off the Wolves. Minnesota (20-22) also allowed 22 second-chance points. The Wolves committed 18 turnovers.

You cannot do those things if you expect to beat great teams and, subsequently, be great yourself.

That Minnesota was still in the fight near the end despite those shortcomings is a credit to the team's talent.

Edwards went off for 25 points in the first half, hitting four 3-pointers to help Minnesota take control of the game. But Edwards scored just five points in the second half.

The Wolves' "big three" of Edwards, Towns and D'Angelo Russell were responsible for 84 of Minnesota's 108 points. Towns tallied 18 of his 25 points in the second half, while also grabbing nine rebounds for the game, while Russell had 29 points and six assists.

They nearly overcame an off night from the team's bench — Malik Beasley, Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid combined to go 4 for 23 from the field — all by themselves.

But Memphis wouldn't allow it.

Minnesota held Grizzlies guard Ja Morant — an MVP candidate at just 22 years of age — to just three points in the first half. But Morant corrected course out of the break. He took the game over in the third frame, going off for 11 points and four assists as Memphis outscored Minnesota 37-24 to take a six-point lead into the fourth quarter.

Minnesota ate up that deficit minutes into the fourth quarter, and the teams went back and forth trading the lead, as they did for much of the night in a highly entertaining contest. These two teams are prone to play such thrillers, as they did earlier in the season in Memphis when the Grizzlies topped Minnesota in overtime after the Wolves surrendered a double-digit lead in the fourth frame.

"This was a little bit of a rewind of the last time we were here," Finch said. "They beat us down the stretch with a lot of tough rebounds and made all the winning plays and we didn't."

Until that changes, the Timberwolves will continue to flirt with .500, while other young teams like Memphis surge to the head of the pack.

"I definitely think we're close. I think we're right there. I think we're right on it," Russell said. "But until we buy in to doing those little things, we won't find a way to win the game. We will beat ourselves at the end of the game because of those little things. That's what it's coming down to. It's that one rebound, that one not-foul, that 50-50, that one turnover. That's what it comes down to a lot of times in the NBA."

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