Ailing Timberwolves march to loss without Saunders
MINNEAPOLIS — Before Monday night, Sam Mitchell’s memories of stalking the Target Center sidelines were nothing but fond, albeit faint.
But that was years ago, before the original Timberwolves player was reunited with the franchise as an assistant. Before the Kevin Love trade and its current fallout, which features a mostly-youthful litter that hasn’t learned how to win yet.
"It’s tough when you’ve got a young team and you’re trying to develop players and win," Mitchell, Minnesota’s acting head coach in place of a sick Flip Saunders, said after the Wolves’ 110-101 loss Monday to Denver. "That’s really, really a tough thing to do . . . but that’s the job that we have, the task we have.
"We’re going to keep grinding."
On a night when ABC’s "The Bachelor" and a reported trade sending J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from New York to Cleveland crashed Twitter, the West’s lowliest team slipped further into irrelevance. The Wolves (5-28) now have lost 12 in a row — their longest losing streak since closing 2010-11 with 15 straight defeats — and 18 of their past 19.
Whatever bug had Saunders and forwards Chase Budinger and Robbie Hummel away from the arena Monday wasn’t the culprit in the latest one. Instead, failure to capitalize on a rare potent start, in conjunction with Nuggets guard Arron Afflalo, served as this day’s antagonists.
"I think we just kind of relaxed at the end of the first quarter and they kind of jumped on us," forward Shabazz Muhammad said, "and we didn’t know how to respond."
Afflalo scored a season-high and third-best-ever 34 points on 11-of-18 shooting, including 4-for-6 from 3-point range. Three of those triples came in the opening period.
After blowing an early 7-0 lead, missing 12 of their final 14 shots in the first quarter, the Wolves got back within 10 in the final 4 minutes.
But J.J. Hickson’s dunk spurred a 5-0 jaunt to re-extend the lead. A handful of garbage-time Minnesota buckets rendered the final deficit closer than the game truly dictated.
Sluggish commencement had doomed Minnesota in recent games, but this time, they couldn’t finish the beginning. A 24-6 run spearheaded by Afflalo, traded to Denver from Orlando this past offseason, gave the Nuggets a 35-21 lead after a period.
"We got off to the start we wanted," said rookie Andrew Wiggins, who had his fourth straight 20-plus-point outing with 20 points.
But, Mitchell pointed out, "We just couldn’t maintain it."
With a feeble crowd of 10,386 watching tepidly, Denver (15-20) built a 24-point lead in the second quarter and led 62-41 at halftime.
Following a slothful performance Saturday against Utah, Saunders — who along with Budinger and Hummel has flu-like symptoms — promised lineup changes. They came in the form of veteran Mo Williams starting at point guard in place of rookie Zach LaVine, but the move wasn’t nearly enough of a shakeup.
Foul trouble limited Williams, who finished with 17 points and seven assists in his first start since Dec. 3. LaVine, who had started the past 15 games, had five points and an assist in 25:57.
"Nothing against Zach, nothing that Zach has done wrong," Mitchell said before the game. "We’ve lost 11 in a row and we’re just trying to find a little spark."
Second-year center Gorgui Dieng led the way with his eighth double-double of the season, tallying a career-high-tying 22 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. Muhammad chipped in 19 points, but the Wolves shot just 42.7 percent from the floor.
Their league-worst defense was even worse, allowing the Nuggets to shoot a season-best 54.8 percent from the floor. Denver outscored Minnesota 47-10 off the bench and 56-38 in the paint.
That was more than enough to secure Mitchell’s first loss as a head coach here. The former Raptors head man was previously 3-0 in Minneapolis, though Monday’s loss technically will go on Saunders’ record, not Mitchell’s.
"It’s different," said Mitchell, who coached Toronto from 2004-09, played forward for the Wolves from 1989-92 and 1995-2002 and rejoined them as an assistant last summer. "You’ve just got to coach the game. . . . You have to do things the way you do it within the system that we have. I’m not going to step outside of the system that Flip has implemented, because all the players including myself are comfortable with that."
As of Monday morning, Saunders had planned to coach the team. But when Mitchell spoke to him after shootaround, he said Saunders sounded "bad."
Saunders has another day to try and recover before the Wolves host Phoenix on Wednesday night. But it doesn’t matter who’s technically in charge, Dieng said, because that isn’t the problem.
"That’s the least thing I’m worried about; Sam runs the same plays, so I’m not worried about that," Dieng said. "The more the games go, we just need to stick more together. I feel like in the beginning, we was playing together. We were helping each other. And then after that, everyone’s trying to get their own. We need to play together as a team."
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