When Anthony Edwards was pulling his shirt on in the Target Center locker room after a win over the LA Clippers a week ago, his hip was aching and he ventured a guess as to how his two-game road trip would go. He didn’t think he would play against Houston, but when told the Wolves would be in Detroit on Wednesday night, he vowed to be ready.
“We’ve gotta get them back,” Edwards said. “I’ll be playing against Detroit.”
It turns out that Edwards was able to play in Houston on Sunday, and he was back in the starting lineup on Wednesday as well. But if he had any sense of urgency to avenge the Pistons for an embarrassing home loss to them 10 days ago, he was the only one.
With Edwards hobbled by that sore hip, the rest of the Wolves staggered and stumbled through a lifeless performance in Detroit. Even though the Pistons were on the second night of a back-to-back, have the worst record in the Eastern Conference and were missing several key players, they ran circles around a Timberwolves defense that never showed up in a 135-118 victory that ended Minnesota’s four-game winning streak.
If the Timberwolves can ever come to the realization of how much is at stake every time they take the floor, they might have a chance to do something in this wide open Western Conference. If they never are able to grasp that fact, they will be doomed to repeat their embarrassments over and over again, which is exactly what happened in Detroit.
In both losses to the Pistons, the Wolves built double-digit leads early, then relaxed in the belief that the lowly Pistons would just fold, much like the Rockets did on Sunday. But the Pistons punched back, they sensed weakness and they exploited it, exposing the fragility of spirit that this team has shown all season long. And they’ve done it twice.
The last time the Wolves played the Pistons, they played so poorly that it dropped them to 16-21 on the season and prompted a players-only meeting to address the lack of fight. The fallout appeared to be positive because the Wolves promptly went on a four-game winning streak that thrust them right back into the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture. Despite all of the struggle, injury and underachievement that occurred in the first 37 games for the Wolves, their recent surge, coinciding with the increased production from Rudy Gobert, started to send a ripple of belief through the team.
Even in the too-close-for-comfort win over the Rockets, the Wolves showed a competitive edge in the second half that wasn’t seen nearly often enough earlier in the season. Gobert controlled the paint on both ends. Things were trending in the right direction.
The Wolves came into Detroit with a score to settle, and they played like it early. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead, looking like a team that meant business and had not forgotten the ignominy of that defeat on their home court.
— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) January 12, 2023
But as they have done so often this season, they couldn’t capitalize on the early momentum. Some teams have a killer instinct. The Wolves prefer to roll out the welcome mat. Rather than extend that 10-point lead, the Wolves relaxed, giving the Pistons wide-open 3s and free runs to the basket to let them back in the game, and Minnesota led just 34-31 after the first quarter.
Edwards aggravated his hip injury after just one minute of playing time in the second quarter. He was initially ruled out for the rest of the game, but watched from the bench as his teammates refused to put up any resistance defensively against the 26th-ranked offense in the NBA. The Pistons shot 60 percent from the field, 53 percent from 3 and outscored the Wolves 36-23 in the third quarter to break the game open.
Gobert had 16 points and 14 rebounds and was the only starter with a plus-minus that wasn’t in the red (he was a 0). In another theme that has extended for most of the season, it was the perimeter defense that failed over and over again.
KILLIAN WITH THE BIG MAN MOVE💪 pic.twitter.com/LqP0NXW5DW
— Detroit Pistons (@DetroitPistons) January 12, 2023
“Ball pressure was non-existent,” coach Chris Finch told reporters after the game. “We just didn’t get into the ball. We didn’t make them feel uncomfortable. And then ball-contain was poor.”
— Bally Sports Detroit (@BallySportsDET) January 12, 2023
The normally reliable Jaden McDaniels had a rough night defensively trying to track Bogdanovic and turned the ball over three times. D’Angelo Russell shot the ball well — 19 points on 5-for-8 3s — but had nothing for the young, erratic Pistons backcourt on the other end of the floor. Even Taurean Prince, who had been excellent in his previous three games, wasn’t sharp. He may have been slowed by an ankle injury that he suffered early in the game and played through, but he wound up 3-for-9 and the Wolves were outscored by 21 points in his 27 minutes.
After a strong first five games of the season that made him appear poised to deliver on his high ambitions, Jaylen Nowell has struggled to find any kind of a rhythm. He is shooting 42 percent from the field and 28 percent from 3-point range in the 37 games since, and he missed all three of his 3s in Detroit on a disastrous night for the bench.
Bryn Forbes has a solid first turn through the rotation, but Finch didn’t go back to him in the second half with the Wolves trying to get stops.
It got so bad in the third quarter that Edwards felt compelled to check back into the game even though he had already been ruled out by the team. Clearly laboring, he had two turnovers because his mobility was so limited, physically unable to provide the spark the Wolves desperately needed. And yet, Finch stayed with him in the fourth quarter.
Edwards played the entire 12 minutes despite the Wolves never trailing by less than 14 points. They were down by 20 with 4:21 left, and Edwards remained in the game. They were down 18 with two minutes to go, and he stayed in. It was an honorable gesture from Edwards to try to inspire his teammates, and the NBA has been full of double-digit comebacks this season. But the fourth quarter never felt within reach with the way the Timberwolves were defending and Finch said he never gave any thought to resting Edwards.
“Not really,” he said. “If he’s good to go, he’s good to go.”
Edwards just looks beat up right now. He had to leave the Clippers game early and needed to play 37 minutes against the lackluster Rockets thanks to the team’s immature first 16 minutes of the game. He probably needs a day off here at some point to try to let that hip heal, but the Timberwolves seemingly cannot afford to have him sit out.
He is the one player who was showing real urgency on Wednesday night, the one person who seemed to understand the stakes of a game like this.
They have now lost to the Pistons twice, Charlotte and San Antonio at home, four damaging performances that have helped put them in a hole in the playoff race. A win on Wednesday could have put them in seventh in the West, and that’s where the solace comes in.
Denver and Memphis, both 28-13, are starting to gain some separation atop the conference, but the rest of it is jam packed. The Wolves (20-22) are 1 1/2 games out of the No. 6 seed right now. They are not alone in having disappointing losses on their resume.
Golden State has lost twice each to Detroit and Orlando. Houston has beaten Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Dallas. The Pistons have also beaten the Nuggets and Mavericks. It happens and doesn’t have to induce panic.
Given how poorly the Wolves started the season, they can afford losses like these far less than most other teams in the mix. A serious team would have let the Pistons have it on Wednesday night. Instead, the Wolves just let them take it.
They are in a fight for their lives right now. It’s time for them to start acting like it.
(Top Photo: Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images)