Timberwolves hit rock bottom with a demoralizing loss to Detroit Pistons

For almost half of the season now, we have stared into the eyes of this revamped Minnesota Timberwolves team, the one assembled to restore consistent competence to a franchise that has rarely shown anything close to it. We have brushed aside early struggles as nothing more than growing pains, giving them the benefit of the doubt that they just needed more time to adopt a style totally unique to the way the NBA does business these days.

We have expressed concern when those eyes glazed over in performances that could be described as effortless, but not in a good way. And when that has failed to elicit any kind of hope or encouragement, we have shouted at them, chided them and spoken the troubling truth in search of any kind of glimmer in those eyes, any little spark that may hint at a flame burning somewhere deep down in their collective soul.

Now sitting at 16-21, losers of six straight games after getting run off their homecourt by the Detroit Pistons bench — yes, the bench of a 10-29 team, not the starters — it is time to start asking if this team even has a fuse to be lit. For most of this season, their eyes have told us that they do not. There was no sign of it on Saturday night, in a must-win game against one of the worst teams in the NBA. No matter how hard you look, wanting to see some pride, some heart, some understanding of the hole they are digging and the laughter they are eliciting from the rest of the league, it just hasn’t been there nearly often enough.

The struggles the Timberwolves are facing this season go far deeper than schemes or talent or fit, although all three of those things have been problems at one time or another. The biggest issue this team faces is that when they have to dig deep to find some reservoir of gumption, guts and heart in an effort to overcome an obstacle in front of them, they not only have trouble locating any of it, but they also seemingly don’t want to do the digging in the first place.

We will get to all of the basketball issues in a moment, from Rudy Gobert’s ineffectiveness to D’Angelo Russell’s casualness to Chris Finch’s apparent inability to get this team to address the same exact weaknesses that hammer them over and over again. The problems this team has are far more existential.

There is no other explanation for the performance in the second half on Saturday night. After two straight spirited performances in close losses to New Orleans and Milwaukee, two heavyweights who had to get incredible performances from their superstars pulled out victories over the short-handed Wolves, Minnesota came into the game against the Pistons in desperate need of a win. The Wolves seemed to recognize it as Anthony Edwards was in the lineup after taking a scary fall in the fourth quarter against Milwaukee the night before and Kyle Anderson (back spasms) and Gobert (illness) both followed suit after being listed as questionable for the game. .

The Wolves came out firing, with Edwards and Russell combining for 27 points in a 39-point first quarter. They led by as many as 18 points in the frame, and Edwards’ attacking despite playing with a sore hip looked to be serving as inspiration for a wipeout. They still led by 14 at halftime, which should have been more than enough against a team that had lost 10 of its previous 12 games, mostly in convincing fashion.

But rather than sensing an opponent begging to be beaten, the Wolves just stopped trying. They went into halftime knowing that they have been one of the worst third quarter teams in the league all season long, and yet still came out of the break with another putrid period. Detroit had one thing going for it in Bojan Bogdanovic, and the Wolves just never reacted to it. He scored 17 of his 28 points in the third, made all seven of his shots, including all three wide open 3-pointers. Once again, the Wolves could not adjust to an opponent, and it led to the 23rd-ranked offense in the league outscoring them 38-24 to tie the game at 88 heading into the fourth.

But that was just the beginning of the most disastrous stretch of basketball the Timberwolves have played this season. After the Wolves gave away a 12-point lead in the final five minutes of the third quarter, Finch sent out Russell, Gobert, Jaylen Nowell, Kyle Anderson and Austin Rivers to start the fourth while Edwards rested. It was a veteran-heavy group that should have been able to recognize the danger the Wolves were in. Instead, the Pistons ripped off a 15-2 run to take an 11-point lead.

Finch sent Edwards back in at 9:39, much earlier than usual, and swapped Anderson for Jaden McDaniels in the middle of the run in an effort to turn things around, but it didn’t work. The Pistons grabbed two offensive rebounds on one possession, finishing it with two free throws from Hamidou Diallo for a 104-94 lead that was more than enough.

The fourth-quarter box score was as damning as one can get. The Pistons’ starters did not make a field goal in the entire 12 minutes. Diallo put up 12 points and seven rebounds all by himself. The Pistons outrebounded the Wolves 20-8, including 7-0 on the offensive glass. It was 9-0 in second-chance points and 16-6 on points in the paint. That’s how you go from up 14 at halftime to losing the game by 12 to a tanking team on your home floor.

After begging and pleading with his players to rebound better, the Wolves responded to Finch by getting drubbed on the boards 52-37, including 15-9 on offense. The Pistons dominated in second-chance points (22-6) and in transition (24-11). Those are effort categories, folks. It’s not about coaching or talent, X’s or O’s. It’s about getting punched in the mouth repeatedly and just not mustering the give-a-damn to punch back.

Russell didn’t grab a rebound all night and his transition defense was as bad as it’s been all season. He came out firing with 13 of his 25 points in the first quarter, but was 1-for-6 in the fourth. The shot selection in that final period was galling, including a pull-up 3 while they were down five with 2:15 to play. Cory Joseph took the ball right at Russell on the other end for a layup that essentially ended any hopes of a comeback.

Edwards was inspirational for answering the bell after the fall on Friday, and he appeared to be trying to will the Wolves to a win with a 14-point first quarter. He finished with 30 points, seven rebounds and five assists. But he, too, was 1-for-6 in the fourth quarter and ground the offense to a halt with his ISO tendencies. He also had a turnover on a too-late lob to Gobert, a continuing sign of their difficulties finding chemistry.

“We got really selfish in the second half,” Finch told reporters after the game.

Gobert took only three shots, made all of them, and had nine points, 10 rebounds, three turnovers and two blocks, another disappointing night for a player the Wolves moved heaven and earth to get. Unless Russell and Edwards start finding him more effectively, and Gobert starts to make the game easier for his teammates to earn their trust, this team is dead in the water.

It also goes beyond their big players. Nowell was roasted on defense, scored nine points and was minus-23 in 18 minutes. Anderson missed six of his eight shots and Matt Ryan, who is being played because of his outside shooting, missed all three of his really good looks from 3-point range.

Finch said after the game that he may have to change things up and play different players who will show a desire to get rebounds and get back on defense. He has to do something, because everything he has tried to this point in the season has not worked.

When MinnPost’s Britt Robson asked Naz Reid after the game if it was a mystery to the players why this team is underachieving, Reid offered up an ominously cryptic answer.

“Not really. We know. We know. We know why,” he said after a players-only meeting. “And you know, I’m gonna kind of keep that in the house. But we know why. That’s why I said before, I feel like we can change this. We know we can change it. So we just got to buy into the things that we know.”

It’s dangerous time in Minnesota. The losses are piling up and so are the frustrations. This passion play has been at the local art house for the last two decades, and the foundation crumbles so much more easily when it has been blown up and rebuilt over and over again. Fingers start pointing and fabric is torn and the team is staring down the barrel of a potential disaster should they finish in the lottery and give their pick to Utah, where Walker Kessler has out-performed Gobert in some loud areas this season.

“I think tonight was the first time I saw them frustrated with each other through a lot of different ins and outs of the lineup, tough losses on the road, but tonight I think it manifested itself in a different way,” Finch said. “A lot of frustration with guys not making the right and simple play.”

New President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly built a contender in Denver on the strength of organizational harmony. He has already said this season that the responsibility is on him, not the players or coaches, to build a roster that fits together and can be successful. Despite the team’s struggles, there are no indications internally that Finch’s job is in jeopardy. Connelly prides himself on avoiding the kind of internal dysfunction that has plagued this franchise forever. Stability and continuity are core beliefs for him and he said The Athletic a few weeks ago that Finch is “one of the best coaches I’ve been around.”

The Wolves were 16-20 last season before coming together and going on a run to finish as the seventh seed in the West. But this team seems so much further away right now. The Wolves may have more collective talent than last year’s team. But the thing that drove that team to overachieve was the fire in the eyes. That team wanted to fight. That team had pride and will, all the intangibles you could ever want.

Right now, you look in this team’s eyes and there is nothing there. They have been hard to watch all season long, both for their plodding execution and their Tin Man emptiness. Last year Patrick Beverley lit the fuse. Does this team even have one?

All season long the Timberwolves have been short on leaders. But Reid pulled back the curtain on what could be an even bigger problem: they are also short on followers. There may not be a player who will lay down the law in a film session like Beverley. But there may not be enough players willing to hear the constructive criticism when it comes, from teammates or coaches. How else to explain that the Timberwolves continue to have the same problems every single game: lack of rebounding, poor transition defense and disastrous third quarters.

Reid said the Wolves have to be willing to be coached by their teammates.

“How can I say it? Not always having your own thoughts. If your teammates suggest something, try it, it might work,” Reid said.

When the locker room doors closed behind them on Saturday night after their worst loss of the season, the Timberwolves players had to look each other in the eyes. There can be no more running from their problems. The reasons that have been offered for much of the season — injuries, unfamiliarity with new faces — could not be applied to a game against the team with the worst record in the NBA.

The Timberwolves have hit rock bottom. They are all wearing this record. They are all carrying this losing streak. They are all being laughed at by a league that has been saying “I told you so” from the moment the Gobert trade was consummated.

Maybe this whole thing is beyond saving. Maybe losing Karl-Anthony Towns, Jordan McLaughlin and Taurean Prince for as long as they have is too much to overcome. Maybe the Gobert trade was a colossal mistake. Even if all of that is true, this team wouldn’t be as derided as it has been if they just looked like they cared.

Or maybe, as Gobert said afterwards, there is still time to turn it around. Maybe in four months we will be looking back at this game and the reaction to it as the thing that got the Timberwolves going. If that happens, the team will have summoned some inner strength and care factor that until this point has been undetectable.

(Photo of Anthony Edwards: David Berding/Getty Images)

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