Preview: Timberwolves vs. Suns
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Timberwolves are undergoing plenty of self-evaluation after a few disappointing losses because of a defense that ranks among the NBA's worst.
The Phoenix Suns, who gave Minnesota one of those losses, come to town Sunday.
The Timberwolves have lost three of their past four games and allowed at least 100 points in each contest.
Miami hit a franchise-record 19 3-pointers to beat Minnesota 109-97 on Friday. Instead of coach Tom Thibodeau blowing up against his team, star Jimmy Butler took his turn stressing the importance of defense on his new team.
"We haven't guarded anybody all year long," Butler said. "We've got to eventually figure it out and want to play defense, stop trying to outscore the opposing team. That starts with me and goes all the way down the line. We've got to start guarding somebody. It's getting ridiculous and it's getting sad."
Minnesota (11-8) is tied for fifth in the Western Conference, but its defensive rating of 110.3 is 26th out of 30 NBA teams.
Phoenix (7-13) is trying to remedy its own deficiencies with new coach Jay Triano taking control. The Suns have lost nine of their last 12 games after Friday's 115-91 loss at home to New Orleans.
Friday's loss even had Triano questioning if he's worked the team too hard, according to the Arizona Republic. Triano even wondered if the team should hold a practice Saturday after playing Friday night and traveling for an afternoon game in Minnesota.
Triano then decided to keep working his team and build the proper habits, according to the paper.
"Maybe it pays dividends later in the season, but we have to keep working," Triano told the Arizona Republic. "Big picture is we have to develop these guys, so whatever we're doing, we have to get our guys used to playing and practicing."
One of the Suns few wins during this recent stretch provided one of the most frustrating losses for the Wolves.
After a lopsided loss at Golden State, Minnesota had two days off before facing the Suns in Phoenix on Nov. 11. The Suns shot 53.5 percent from the field and outscored the Wolves 33-22 in the fourth quarter in a 118-110 victory.
The game also highlighted another disturbing trend for Minnesota. It's been outscored by a bigger margin in the fourth quarter than any other team in the league. A stagnant offense in the fourth is only one reason for the issues.
"I would think time and time, after going through the film, you're watching you constantly getting your (expletive) beat on the defensive end, you'd get sick and tired of it," Butler said after the Heat buried the Wolves from deep. "I don't think it registers in our heads like that.
"It's like, 'Oh eventually they're just going to miss a shot.' Not in this league. In this league you have to work to make them miss their shot, you've got to do all the right things.
"We're letting guys get to their strengths and not making them go to their weaknesses."
With Butler joining Thibodeau in the offseason along with Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford, hopes are high in Minnesota. The Wolves won five games in a row and appeared to turn the corner before going 4-5 over their last nine games.
The belief also stood that the veterans would change the outcome late in games. It's been more of the same for the Wolves, who are being outscored by 4.1 points per game in the fourth.
Center Karl-Anthony Towns had 18 points Friday against Miami, but 16 came in the fourth quarter once the Heat had taken control.
"They're looking for him," Thibodeau said. "If he stands stationary you're not going to get the ball. You've got to keep moving. And you have to execute. He scored some at the end, but it was meaningless."
The Suns endured some of their own late scoring that proved too little, too late against New Orleans. T.J. Warren scored 18 points and Tyler Ulis added a season-high 17 in the loss.
"I think we just came out flat and we never really picked up our energy until later in the game when it really didn't matter," Marquese Chriss told the team's website. "I just think that's something we have to learn from again, just growing pains, and it's something that we can't let keep happening."
Minnesota could be without Teague (right Achilles) and reserve forward Nemanja Bjelica (left mid-foot sprain) on Sunday. Thibodeau has called them day-to-day after they each missed their first game of the season Friday.