The Timberwolves flew into Boston the day of their game after playing the night prior, went to battle without both Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert, and fought hard enough to reach the point where they should have handed the Celtics their first home loss of the season.
Should have … but did not.
Minnesota spoiled an exemplary effort through the game’s first 44 minutes with some shoddy decision-making down the stretch and fell 127-120 to Boston in overtime.
“The difference was a lot of silly mistakes, breakdowns, bad offense to end the game. We should’ve won this game,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch told reporters. “All credit to the Celtics — they beat us, they took it from us.”
The Wolves led 109-102 with 130 seconds to play. But Minnesota (26-11) proceeded to miss its next four shots to go along with an offensive foul. As a result, Boston (29-8 and 18-0 at home) scored the game’s next nine points to take a two-point lead on a Jrue Holiday corner triple with 26 seconds to play.
Minnesota responded on the next possession, as Anthony Edwards was fouled on a drive to the bucket. The 22-year-old guard hit a pair of free throws to knot the score.
The Celtics had a chance to end the game in regulation, but Jayson Tatum’s jumper rimmed out as time expired.
The Wolves scored on three of their first four possessions in the extra session but went 0 for 5 with three turnovers over the final 2 minutes, 40 seconds of overtime as Boston pulled away.
The Celtics simply out-executed the Wolves down the stretch run of both the fourth quarter and overtime. Sure, fatigue may have played a role. Weather forced Minnesota to spend Tuesday night in Florida after downing the Magic. The Wolves arrived in Boston just hours before Wednesday’s tilt.
But the collapse was another reminder of how much Minnesota struggles in crunch time when Conley isn’t around to guide the ship. Minnesota averages 1.2 points per possession in clutch time — when the game is in the final five minutes of overtime or regulation and within a margin of five points — when Conley is on the floor.
When he’s not, it’s usually chaos, as it was before he arrived in Minnesota via trade a year ago. Edwards almost exclusively had the ball in his hands down the stretch Wednesday and responded by going 1 for 7 from the floor with three turnovers in the fourth quarter and overtime. Possession after possession, Edwards would dribble the air out of the ball for 15 seconds, then Boston would come over to trap and Minnesota would have no time to do anything with the ball from there.
The end result was either a turnover or one pass that led to a rushed shot.
“Just too much iso against a really good defense. We built a lead and we were, for the most part, playing with good movement, moving the ball,” Finch said. “And then we just got too stagnant. Then we’re relying on one pass and a shot, or driving at the end of the clock.”
It was eerily reminiscent of Timberwolves teams from recent seasons.
“This is how we closed games last year, and it didn’t really work for us,” Finch said. “We’ve been good because we’ve been able to mix in a lot of different things to close games. At the heart of it, obviously, is Mike and Rudy. But we can pivot to KAT, we certainly have Ant, who’s making a lot of plays. But that’s who we are right now, and we have to use it all.”
Tatum scored 26 of his 45 points in the final 13 minutes of the game. Boston repeatedly got Karl-Anthony Towns switched onto Tatum, and Tatum operated and scored with ease.
“They just put him in pick and roll, and he had some momentum drives against us, for one. He hit a couple tough stepbacks, that’s what he does. We want to try to take those away, so he got those going,” Finch said. “The real thing that got him going was Jaden McDaniels in foul trouble. … That hurt. Not having him out there definitely hurt us.”
The late-game debacle cast a shadow on what was such a strong performance for Minnesota.
Edwards finished with 29 points and six rebounds. Towns had 26 points, 13 rebounds and six dimes. Kyle Anderson dominated the start of the fourth quarter, getting buckets in isolation at will. He had 17 points, eight boards and five assists in one of his best showings of the season. Naz Reid had a double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds and Nickeil Alexander-Walker tallied 15 points.
Minnesota did so many things well on a night when so many things were stacked against it. But the final eight minutes of action make it all feel as though it was for naught.
“We did everything we wanted to do to put us in a position to win, and our offense broke down at the end, and so did our defense, too,” Finch said. “Lots of mental errors on both ends.”
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