The Timberwolves need more than a Mike Conley-D’Angelo Russell trade to cure what ails them

MINNEAPOLIS — There can be no illusions as the Timberwolves spread out on their planes to take them to various exotic locations for a much-needed All-Star break.

All is not well in Minnesota. The big trade made last week doesn’t solve all the problems that have prevented the Timberwolves from having the winning streak that could help them out of the precarious Play-In position they find themselves in in the Western Conference. When the Washington Wizards slashed at them in the fourth quarter on Thursday night in their last game before halftime, they held a mirror six inches from the Timberwolves’ faces and forced them to see that it will take more than just an exchange of foundations to stabilize a team that has not been able to get out of its own way all season.

The Timberwolves led the Wizards by 20 points in the first quarter, 18 in the second, 18 in the third, and 11 in the fourth. And still they lost. The 114-106 loss botched what had been for much of the night a hopeful home debut for Mike Conley, the point guard acquired from Utah last week in a deal that sent D’Angelo Russell to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Part of the appeal of making the deal they made was injecting some late-game maturity and organization into a Timberwolves offense that has consistently fallen apart late in games after building double-digit leads, most notably in losing six games. the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs last spring.

Early results were promising when the Wolves beat Kyrie Irving, Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks on Monday night, but as this team often does, take a dash of good fortune and treat it like a parade motif. Against a Wizards team that has beaten them six straight times, the Timberwolves stormed out of the gates, leading 30-10 thanks to Conley’s patient feeding of Rudy Gobert at the rim, All-Star scoring level of Anthony Edwards and a stifling defense against a team that didn’t exactly look like it wanted to be there.

Instead of a win that would have pushed them three games over .500 for the first time this season, it moved them just one game out of the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and sent Edwards to Salt Lake City for the All-Star Game festivities. On a high note, the Timberwolves suffered a demoralizing loss that sent them into halftime with the kind of goal the Conley acquisition was supposed to address.

“The biggest area of ​​progression (necessary) is what it’s been all year: maturity, focus, taking advantage of these opportunities that are in front of us,” coach Chris Finch said. “Taking advantage of these opportunities that we created and finding a little more defensive backbone, if you will, in the last quarters. In the last quarters we are fighting to defend at the moment”.

One game after giving up 26 points to a red-hot Irving in the fourth quarter in Dallas, the Wolves were outscored 38-19 by the Wizards in the final frame. Washington trailed by 11 early in the quarter, eight with just over six minutes to go and six with four minutes to play. But they stunned the Wolves with zone defense, shot 62.5 percent, outrebounded Minnesota 19-10 and converted four Wolves turnovers into nine points for the win.

“I feel like it’s the same story,” said Gobert, who had 17 points, 19 rebounds and three blocks. “We get a clue and then we just lose the urgency. Guys get going, we’re up 20, they did one run and cut it down to eight, and then they get more confident and it gets tougher. I just have to be urgent, do the little things and do them for 48 minutes.”

That ugly contentment predates Gobert and was certainly ingrained long before Conley arrived last week. But the last example was as damaging as any of them. The Wolves were rolling early, with Conley setting up Gobert like he did in Utah, Edwards exploding like the All-Star he is, and Wolves Twitter lit up with proclamations of how much more fun this team was to watch with Conley at the controls. against Russell.

Edwards scored 18 points in the first quarter, Gobert made his first five shots after going 9-for-9 against Dallas and the Wolves were rolling.

Even more in Minnesota’s favor was the Wizards’ apparent indifference to putting up a fight. Kyle Kuzma looked like he already had one foot in the arena he was calling his name during the All-Star break, starting 1-for-10 from the field. Kristaps Porzingis stood out just because he’s incredibly tall, not because he was doing anything particularly remarkable on the court (14 points on 4-for-12 shooting and five rebounds). Even Bradley Beal was normal for three quarters while the Timberwolves played the Wizards.

But that’s what the Timberwolves do. While legitimate contenders go down their throats and understand the urgency that comes with a tight Western Conference, the Timberwolves play.

The Wolves built solid leads in each of the four quarters, but seemed to lose focus in the final 3:30 of each period to allow the Wizards to hang on. The Wolves were outscored by 28 total points in the last 3:30 of the four quarters. They turned the ball around, missed shot after shot and stopped defending, apparently hoping the Wizards would just give up and let them celebrate how much better Gobert looks with Conley on the trigger against Russell.

And it looks better. There’s extra bounce in Gobert’s pass these days now that he has a point guard who knows where he likes the ball.

Much of the first three quarters felt like a celebration of ball movement, tenacity and synergy. The Wolves may have gotten a little drunk on their own Kool-Aid. When they In fact Needing a basket in the fourth quarter, Conley missed a couple of good looks en route to an 0-for-6 finish, Edwards went 1-for-7 and Gobert was a harmless 0-for-2. Russell’s ability to make big shots, especially during a year-long shooting career this season, may have come in handy.

Conley hasn’t even been in Minnesota for a week. He’s been a whirlwind since the Jazz traded him, and he said he was mentally and physically exhausted after navigating the process. It may be asking too much for him to take the bull by the horns in just his third game, but the Wolves will need him to assert themselves down the stretch.

“We can’t throw him off a guy’s knee or give up a layup, turn him around and give up another layup. We can’t afford to do that,” Conley said. “We all have to be thinking about that as a whole group. For me to get in here, I just have to be very, very attentive to it. This is my first time being a part of the team and learning what haunts us and what doesn’t. It will be something for me to keep building on as the season progresses.”

The Wolves also struggled with the adjustments Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. made to boost his struggling team. Unseld used a zone to try to keep Wolves out of the paint as they shot 27 percent from 3. He also quickly doubled down on Edwards, who scored 31 of his 34 points in the first three quarters, every time he touched the ball in the box. fourth trimester

It destroyed the game and Finch couldn’t find an answer for his team to fix. They would pass the ball to Kyle Anderson in the middle of the box, but he would miss the Bunnies. Edwards turned the ball over six times. And Naz Reid (minus-12 in 12:30) and Jaylen Nowell (minus-14 in 13 minutes) torpedoed the second unit with missed shots and careless errors.

Finch had to play around with his bench a bit in the second half to keep his starters fresh, but when it became clear Nowell didn’t have it, we went back to Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who went a plus-7 in 4:33 in the first. half, probably should have been a consideration.

Finch could also have tried to cast a different look at Beal, who scored 17 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter. While the Wizards doubled down on Edwards to get the ball out of his hands, the Wolves stayed at home with Beal. He was 6-of-9 from the floor, hit two 3-pointers and went a plus-14 in less than nine minutes.

“I guess you can double down, but a lot of this stuff was going around,” Finch said. “I felt pretty comfortable with what we were doing. I thought we were going to be able to make enough stops. Maybe we could have sent them more bodies.”

The loss barely buries Wolves. They are now two games behind the Clippers for the fourth seed. But every win counts in this hectic Western Conference, especially when you have a 20-point home advantage against a sub-.500 team (albeit one that has played well of late).

“We’ve done it over and over again,” Anderson said. “It hurts like hell. This is the worst, but what are you going to do? Yo have to go ahead.

Wolves have a week to feel sorry for themselves and dig deep to find some kind of inner substance that has yet to be revealed. Once they return from the break, there is no margin for error. Russell is gone, taking his clutch shot, passing and lack of defense from the Lakers (27-32), who are three games behind the Wolves (31-30) and suddenly look formidable with Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt. flanking LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

As they head to reload, they’ll have to come to terms with the fact that there’s no quick fix for this team. It will take more than trading point guards for them to find the consistency they want. They’ll have to eliminate turnovers and find a way to call a real defensive run in the fourth quarter.

Russell had his faults, but he wasn’t the only one to blame for Wolves’ disappointing start to the season. Conley has his virtues, but he can’t be the singular savior of the franchise. They have a week to rest and recalibrate. Once they return from the break, it’s a 21-game sprint to the playoffs. Everything they want to achieve is still right in front of them. Thanks to performances like the one on Thursday night, the margin of error is all but gone.

(Top photo: David Berding/Getty Images)

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