Losers of seven straight, the Minnesota Timberwolves were tasked Sunday with trying to end their losing streak — without Karl-Anthony Towns — against the team they lost to the previous evening at the same site, with Towns.
And they came through, toppling the San Antonio Spurs 96-88 at Target Center in the most surprising way possible: with grit.
That’s been the last adjective to describe this Timberwolves team without Towns. The Wolves lacked fight in many of the first six games the all-star center missed with a dislocated wrist. Perhaps Towns’ early return Saturday, and strong play in a losing effort, inspired his teammates, because Sunday’s performance without him — Towns missed the game as part of the team’s plan to work him back into the fold — was admirable.
The Wolves didn’t win by shooting lights out; they hit on just 42 percent of their shots from the floor, going 34 percent from deep. They won on the defensive end, which is something this franchise just hasn’t done in recent years.
That might be the path forward for this team as it looks to establish itself as a playoff contender in the Western Conference.
“I want it to be a standard in terms of how you play. A defensive grittiness needs to be how we play,” Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders said. “Executing down the stretch needs to be how we play. I’m happy to break a (losing) streak like that, but I’m also happy about moving forward that these guys are showing what they can do when we’re committed to it.”
Prior to Sunday, the Wolves had allowed 120-plus points in seven straight games, a franchise record. They’d allowed 100-plus points in 39 consecutive games, also a record. The last time the Wolves held a team under the century mark came in a 99-84 win over Golden State on Jan. 2, 2020.
Those streaks are dead. How?
“I thought we had a number of guys who were just fed up with losing,” Saunders said.
Minnesota’s players still have playoff aspirations. When Towns has been on the floor, the Wolves look like a playoff-quality club. But that can’t happen in the West if you dig yourselves too big a hole without your best player.
Minnesota grabbed its shovel and went to work Sunday. D’Angelo Russell led the charge with 27 points, five rebounds and five assists. Malik Beasley scored 24 points. Naz Reid, Ed Davis and Jarred Vanderbilt chipped in on the interior in more ways than one.
Defensively, the Wolves (3-7) held the Spurs (5-5), who were without Demar DeRozan, to just 38 percent shooting.
Minnesota has had chances to win other games in this recent losing streak, only to crumble in the final frame. That didn’t happen Sunday, as Minnesota continued to string together stops, while finding ways to get buckets on the other end. A nine-point deficit with nine minutes to play quickly morphed into an eight-point Wolves’ win. Finally.
“I feel like it’s been building,” Beasley said. “We’re a unit who hasn’t had a lot of amount of games together, but we’re figuring it out every day. We’re starting figuring out every night how to defend, we’re playing hard, making the extra pass. We’re a team that needs to do that.”
Minnesota plays Memphis, a fellow Western Conference cellar dweller at the moment, twice this week at Target Center. Given that, it’s not difficult to see a way in which Minnesota could get the train rolling in a positive direction.
“It was a great win. Good to get one,” Russell said. “But try to keep a ‘so what, what’s next’ mentality. We beat a team, now let’s prepare for the next one and have that same mentality and detail going into the next game no matter who we play. Once we got that feeling of what it feels like to get one, why not run some off?”
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