Fourth-quarter doldrums threaten to ruin Timberwolves’ history-making season

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CHICAGO — After yet another late-game collapse in a season that is quickly filling up with them, all Mike Conley could do was lean back against his locker, a towel wrapped around the lower half of his body as he stared blankly at a table in the middle of the room.

“I can’t explain it,” Conley muttered to no one in particular. “I just can’t explain it.”

His Minnesota Timberwolves played one of their best halves of the season in the first half on Tuesday against the mediocre Chicago Bulls. Anthony Edwards was conjuring images of the man who built the United Center with a series of jaw-dropping plays on both ends of the court. Karl-Anthony Towns was knocking down 3-pointers to the delight of a coaching staff that has urged him to fire away to help their struggling offense’s spacing. Jaden McDaniels was locking up Coby White (three points on 1-of-7 shooting) on one end and throwing down emphatic dunks on the other.

It all added up to a lead that reached 23 points early in the third quarter with the Timberwolves appearing to build off the momentum of an impressive win over Houston on Sunday. Facing a team that was 23-27 in the lesser Eastern Conference and going nowhere fast, it seemed unfathomable that the Wolves would blow another double-digit lead. And yet, that is exactly what they did.

Out of nowhere, the Wolves stopped playing the defense that built them the big lead and stopped hitting the shots that got them locked in on defense. They seemingly forgot how to guard White and DeMar DeRozan. They couldn’t box out Andre Drummond. And they turned the ball over just enough to make a questionable late technical foul matter in a 129-123 overtime loss to the Bulls.

It was their fourth blown fourth-quarter lead of at least 10 points in the last 10 games. All five of their most recent losses included a lead of at least eight points in the fourth quarter. For a team that started the season with no blown double-digit leads in the fourth quarter in the first 41 games, it has been a troubling regression to old Timberwolves basketball. This season began as a euphoric rebirth of competitiveness and an express elevator to the top of the Western Conference, highlighted by a suffocating defense that never surrendered leads in the fourth quarter.

Over the past month, the Wolves have reverted to the team that coughed up lead after lead in the playoff series loss to Memphis two years ago. Even worse, they are blowing these big leads to bad teams, including the Charlotte Hornets, San Antonio Spurs and Brooklyn Nets (a game they did hold on to win). If they were better at closing games out recently, they could realistically have a 14-game winning streak right now and own a commanding lead in the West. Instead, they are 35-16 and in a virtual four-team tie with the LA Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets atop the conference with an entirely different identity.

“That’s the theme of our team, theme of the year. We can’t keep leads,” Edwards said. “We’ll figure it out though. It’s still early.”

Saying it is still early when the Wolves are 51 games into the season might not sit well with some fans, but Edwards isn’t exactly wrong. The Wolves still have 31 games and two and a half months to get to the bottom of their struggles and start figuring it out. That is a lifetime in this league and they can take heart that despite their recent problems, they remain right in the hunt.

At the start of the season, had you told the Timberwolves that come February they would be 19 games over .500 and right in the mix as the No. 1-seeded team, coach Chris Finch, president of basketball operations Tim Connelly and the rest of the organization would have taken that without hesitation.

But the staggering number of losses that look so similar has to be an alarm bell for a team that wants to advance out of the first round of the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history. When your star player, who drops 38 points, 12 rebounds and five assists in the House That MJ Built, says your team is now defined by the leads it is blowing, that is an issue.

When your starting point guard can’t even find the words to explain what he is seeing on the floor, that is an issue. When your All-World defensive MVP is outplayed by journeyman Andre Drummond, who had 16 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots, that is an issue.

When McDaniels goes from locking up White in the first half to being a part of a defensive team that yielded 30 points in the second half and also commits two egregious turnovers that giftwrap points for the Bulls, there’s an issue. And when Kyle Anderson misses layups and turns the ball over when driving into traffic, it is an issue.

Anderson is valuable to the Timberwolves defensively and as another ballhandling backup to Conley, but his continued struggles shooting the ball are contributing to Minnesota’s low efficiency on offense. He is shooting 19.4 percent from 3 and regularly passes up open looks when the ball swings to find him in the corner, hindering Minnesota’s spacing. Finch has long said that the Wolves did not bring Anderson in to be a shooter, but he has to find some efficiency on offense to help the Wolves on that end.

Anderson’s night was made even more miserable when he was whistled for a technical foul with the Wolves down 114-112 with 1:26 to play. The Wolves had wanted an and-1 opportunity when Towns hit the deck after a driving layup a few seconds earlier. Much of the Wolves bench was standing during the play and was hollering for a foul call. But referee CJ Washington gave Anderson a technical foul, a call that stunned the Timberwolves.

“I think he pulled the trigger a little too early, honestly,” Anderson said. “All we were saying on the bench was it’s a foul, an and-1. Nobody used profanity, nothing malicious. Just caught up in the moment of the game. That was a quick trigger. I don’t think a veteran ref is calling a tech on that. Nothing to do with the game. But he did.”

DeRozan made the free throw, giving the Bulls a 115-112 lead. Towns, who scored 33 points and went 7 of 16 from 3, hit the game-tying 3 with 50.5 seconds to play, which forced overtime. Had there been no technical foul, the Wolves could have won in regulation.

“It seemed to me like an incredibly quick and unnecessary, at that point in time, call,” Finch said. “Just reacting to a play in the moment that I didn’t think was over-demonstrative. I don’t think there was an excessive discussion or language used or anything like that.”

Crew chief Tony Brothers, who missed most of the second half with an injury to his leg, told a pool reporter that the time and score “has no impact whatsoever. Whatever the infraction is is penalized no matter what time in the game it may be.”

Brothers said the Timberwolves bench had been warned about arguing with officials.

“After being instructed to stop complaining, (Kyle) Anderson continued to complain so he was issued an unsportsmanlike technical for continuous complaining,” Brothers said.

That explanation came as a surprise because they couldn’t recall a warning being issued.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Anderson said. “We’re focusing on the wrong thing. The only ones that used profanity — I’m out there all the time; I heard profanity all game being yelled at the refs. I didn’t use profanity. I said that’s an and-1. Give me a tech? I thought that was a little weird. I don’t know.”

Whether the call was warranted or not does nothing to obscure the Wolves’ tremendous difficulties with putting games away. The best teams in the playoffs close games with ruthless efficiency. Right now, the problems are surfacing so frequently that it does call into question how far the Wolves can go.

Edwards, for one, doesn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel right now.

“Close to getting past it? Nah, we’re not close to getting past it. We were up like, what, 18? 23! They beat us. We’re not close, no.”

That could be just the sting of the night talking. They have beaten the Houston Rockets and the Thunder in the last week, but Gobert warned after the Houston win on Sunday that the Wolves had to be more consistent if they were going to make any noise in the playoffs.

While many in the locker room celebrated that victory on Sunday, Gobert stressed the importance of consistency. Without it, he said, the Wolves aren’t going anywhere.

“We got to find a way to forget about the score and just be dogs for 48 minutes, Gobert said. “Also, once again, too much talking to the officials. They’re not going to get better. I think we got to focus on ourselves.”

(Photo of Karl-Anthony Towns: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

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