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March Mania

Monday’s meltdown wasn’t surprising. The Timberwolves can’t close games

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) reacts to a non-call by a referee against the Sacramento Kings in the fourth quarter of their game Monday, Jan. 27, at Target Center in Minneapolis. The Kings won 133-129 in overtime. Bruce Kluckhohn / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- Monday’s meltdown in Minneapolis was a long time coming.

The Minnesota Timberwolves had a 99.9 percent chance of victory at various points in both the third and fourth quarters against the visiting Sacramento Kings, according to ESPN. And yet, Minnesota is the first team since play-by-play data became available in 1996 to blow a lead of 17 points or more with fewer than three minutes to play (NBA teams were 8,378-0 in such situations before Monday’s game). While the numbers are staggering, the result was somewhat predictable.

If there is ever a team to fold in historic fashion, it would be this one. The Timberwolves simply cannot close games.

There are a few similar examples to Monday’s collapse, when the team squandered a 13-point lead with 100 seconds to play. Like their Dec. 6 loss in Oklahoma City, when Minnesota missed three free throws in a span of three seconds, made one it tried to miss, took a delay of game because of an untucked jersey and then allowed a full-court baseball pass that led to an open layup at the buzzer to send the game to overtime. In the extra session, the Thunder routed the shellshocked Timberwolves to win 139-127.

Those are the spectacular collapses, but there have been plenty of others. Since Dec. 1, 17 of the Timberwolves’ games have featured “clutch time” situations, when games are within five points with fewer than five minutes to play. Minnesota is 2-15 in such games.

The Timberwolves have actually played 64 clutch-time minutes over the past two months, ninth most in the NBA. They are getting outscored by 18 points per 100 possessions in those situations, fifth worst in the NBA.

So while the Timberwolves have played some pretty good teams relatively well for 40, 45 minutes a night of late, it’s irrelevant. They can never find ways to close the deal.

“We’ve been in a lot of games. It’s not something you take solace in, it’s something that you look at. If you’re going to focus on each day, you’re looking and saying, ‘Hey, in these games, where are we losing these games?’ ” Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders said. “And, a lot of times, it’s situational in the second half, when some of the teams start turning up the pressure offensively, turning up the pressure defensively. So those are the things we’ve got to focus on.”

Minnesota has had a difficult time executing in those situations on both ends of the floor. Against Sacramento, the Timberwolves weren’t able to adjust when Buddy Hield got hot from deep. Hield and De’Aaron Fox got a number of good looks in the fourth quarter and overtime when Minnesota’s big — often Karl-Anthony Towns — didn’t come up to contest shots off the pick and roll.

Malcolm Brogdan had success on similar plays in Indiana’s recent wins over the Timberwolves.

And, offensively, the Timberwolves have a hard time generating quality looks, or knocking down the good ones they get, late in games.

And then there are the winning plays. In overtime in Minnesota’s season-opening victory over Brooklyn, since-traded Treveon Graham sprinted down the floor and skied for an offensive rebound off a missed Robert Covington 3-point attempt. Graham made the putback and got fouled, the key moment in the Timberwolves’ upset win.

In the locker room after the game, Saunders showed the clip of that play and said, “This right here, this is the epitome of who we’re going to be this year.”

What a contrast that was to Monday, when Fox purposely missed a free throw to himself in the closing seconds of regulation, then waltzed down the lane with the rebound for an uncontested, game-tying layup.

Where have the Graham-like hustle plays been over the past two months?

“They haven’t been there. Haven’t been there,” Saunders conceded. “I think a lot of times when you do go on losing streaks, you gotta pull yourself out of the mind-set of ‘Oh here we go.’ It’s got to be moving on to the next play. That’s what I plan on doing today, attacking this day. That’s not just a lip-service thing, because I believe in what we’re doing. I believe in the down-the-line vision of this. But we need to make sure that we correct last night.”

Not just last night, but every night for about the past two months. If the Timberwolves can’t correct what they do in winning time, nothing else will make much of a difference.

“Right now we aren’t doing the things late in games to put ourselves in position to win,” Saunders said. “Late-game situations isn’t just a side-out out of bounds play or a baseline out of bounds play. Late-game situations are a free throw box out … it’s not fouling 3-point shooters. You’d like to think that youth plays a factor in that, but we need to be better at that, and we will.”