For one of the few times this season, the Timberwolves game operations staff didn’t have to pipe in music after the pregame introduction for the team’s coach.
Instead, when public address announcer Shawn Parker said Ryan Saunders’ name, a loud ovation overtook Target Center as Saunders’ name was emblazoned on the scoreboard on another Prince-themed night.
It was evident Saunders has given the fans a jolt, a hope that he can salvage this season after the Wolves were languishing in inconsistency under former coach Tom Thibodeau.
But those hoping Saunders would be a magic fix for this Wolves team came away disappointed after a 119-115 loss to the Mavericks in a game that carried a lot of baggage from the Thibodeau version of these Wolves.
When owner Glen Taylor fired Thibodeau, he cited the fact that the Thibodeau-led Wolves lost a number of games against opponents he felt were worse than the Wolves. Dallas entered the night behind the Wolves in the standings and won on the road for just the fourth time all season. Friday was the kind of result that got Thibodeau canned.
It was also the way the Wolves lost. After the game, Saunders said one of the main reasons the Wolves lost was: “We didn’t do a great job in terms of communicating as a team.”
Rookie Luka Doncic torched the Wolves for the second time this season, scoring 29 points and dishing out 12 assists. He hit the go-ahead three-pointer with 22.9 seconds remaining after a Taj Gibson tip-in gave the Wolves a 115-114 lead late. Karl-Anthony Towns overcame an apparent leg injury to score 30 points, but Towns wasn’t sure if he would be healthy enough to play Saturday against New Orleans.
The lack of communication showed up in the sequence that led to the Doncic three. After Josh Okogie fell out of bounds trying to save the ball for the Wolves, Doncic got the ball from DeAndre Jordan and dribbled down the floor. Derrick Rose, who had 21 points in his return from a sprained right ankle, said the Wolves should have fouled Doncic since they had one to give. Instead, Doncic drained the three as his primary defender, Okogie, was still trying to make it back up the floor.
“You’re so lost in the game that it kind of slips your mind, especially when they’re coming down at full speed,” Rose said. “The heat of the moment is different too. It’s kind of hard to just think about it and just do it.”
Saunders said it should’ve never gotten to that point, because the Wolves weren’t communicating well enough on defense for most of the second half.
“Just being definitive in our calls,” Saunders said. “Understanding the league has gone to a lot of switching and therefore a lot of slipping offensively. So that hurt us.”
The Wolves had a chance to tie or take the lead again, but Dario Saric passed up an open three in the corner to swing the ball to Rose at the top of the key.
“I saw Derrick and I had a guy running at me, and I just made a decision,” Saric said. “Obviously I have a bad game. It was the situation maybe.”
But Rose passed up the shot and tried to get the ball to Towns, except Harrison Barnes stole the pass, ending the chance of Saunders’ home debut ending in an emotional victory.
“We’d like [Saric] to shoot that three,” Saunders said. “But we emphasize ball movement and everything. He’ll make that the next time.”
Next time, Saunders — and Taylor — would prefer games like this aren’t that close.