Timberwolves drop fourth straight, but show signs of improvement

The final score suggests Sunday’s loss to Denver was just another in a long line of terrible performances.

After dropping each of their three previous contests by 21-plus points, Minnesota fell 124-109 to the Denver Nuggets at Target Center.

Hardly an improvement.

But it didn’t feel that way, at least not for much of the night. Despite its 1-4 record entering the contest, many still expect Denver to contend for a Western Conference crown this season. Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is posting MVP-type numbers.

The Nuggets are great. The Wolves are not.

Yet Minnesota actually led 84-83 heading into the final frame, whereas the opposing team’s starters barely had to play in the fourth quarter of the Wolves’ previous three defeats.

That’s a low bar. Saying one blowout loss is any better than another doesn’t speak well to where Minnesota is at as a team — but it’s the hard truth. The Wolves looked like a team heading off the rails through the previous three games.

Sunday, they largely played with a rhythm, organization and structure.

“I actually thought we played well. … I don’t think we’re ready to win yet. I think we’re still figuring out how to lose,” D’Angelo Russell said. “It sounds crazy, but the way you lose says a lot about the team. And I think, today, how we lost, was a good way to lose. We did the right things throughout the game. We played hard through 35 minutes, the process was right, and we just let it get away from us in those small moments, but I think we’ll be all right.”

Russell found his way again, finishing with 18 points and seven assists. Malik Beasley continued to be great on the glass and in the scoring column, tallying 25 points and seven rebounds, and Jarrett Culver looked like the guy who played during the preseason, scoring 20 points to go with six rebounds.

It was all for naught because of a putrid fourth quarter, in which Minnesota was out-scored 41-25. Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders said the Wolves didn’t make the right plays to start the quarter and couldn’t get stops, but it looked like a case of a superior team simply imposing its will.

“We gave ourselves a chance,” said Ed Davis, who led the team with eight rebounds. “We just couldn’t punch back after they made that run on us in the fourth quarter. Just didn’t have enough in the tank.”

Culver noted after the game that two or three quarters isn’t good enough to win in this league, but it’s a lot better than three or four bad ones. Perhaps Sunday provided a baseline from which the Wolves (2-4) can work.

Beasley liked the ball movement, the team defense and the little things, such as when he entered a team huddle Sunday to find a bunch of smiling faces. The Wolves were having fun playing.

“I do applaud a lot of things our guys did tonight. I thought that these guys competed and I thought that there were some steps in the right direction,” Saunders said. “I was really happy with a lot of that. I’m not happy now, because a loss is a loss, but I’m happy in those moments, when you see that growth, you see those things that you’re working at constantly with these guys at and they’re getting better with.”

Saunders shuffled the starting lineup, going with Russell, Beasley, Culver, Juancho Hernangomez and Davis to open the contest.

Davis started over Naz Reid to both defend Jokic, and take advantage of Davis’ chemistry with Russell dating back to their Brooklyn days.

Not only did Ricky Rubio not start, but he played just 18 minutes, while only sharing the floor with Russell for mere seconds.

“Hey, the bottom line was we had a few poor games, and we needed to change some things up,” Saunders said. “We went to that tonight. For 36 minutes, I thought we played in spurts of really good basketball, and then you obviously have to add in that fourth quarter, and it turned out to be a night that we wouldn’t want.”

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