LOS ANGELES — The Timberwolves began this postseason the way they ushered themselves out of the previous one — by relinquishing a double-digit lead in the second half thanks in part to absent late-game execution.
Even with a few different players on the floor from last season in Mike Conley and Kyle Anderson, the Wolves couldn't stop themselves from letting the Lakers back in the play-in game by shutting down on offense. They didn't score any points in the final six minutes of regulation until Mike Conley hit three free throws with 0.1 seconds remaining.
Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns each looked like shells of themselves for different reasons. Towns admitted he played tentative because he had five fouls, but perhaps the Wolves would have been better off if Towns threw caution to the warm Los Angeles wind and risked picking up his sixth foul while maintaining aggression. Edwards looked both lost and injured, as he played through the fourth quarter with tape on his left shoulder and had ice packs on his knees and right hand as he moved gingerly around the locker room after the game.
The Wolves have a lot to prove this postseason that they learned from last season's colossal mistakes against Memphis, and they didn't get off to a confidence-building start.
After the game, the Wolves and coach Chris Finch were quick to point out a 17-3 free-throw disparity between themselves and the Lakers in the second half. But getting whistles typically requires players to be attacking the basket. The Wolves' late-game offense typically consisted of guys standing around the perimeter until someone tried to do something unsuccessfully in the final seconds of the shot clock.
"We got stagnant," coach Chris Finch said. "We ran out of gas, we got tired, for sure. We kinda stopped cutting, the ball dried up, a lot of holding. The obvious things that you saw. And then that was basically it."
The thing is, the Wolves might not have learned much from Tuesday's game that they can apply Friday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, who beat host New Orleans 123-118 in a play-in game on Wednesday night, and moving forward should they advance to play No. 1 seed Denver in the playoffs.
Rudy Gobert's presence on the floor will change the dynamic of what the Wolves may do against the Thunder at Target Center. Perhaps they missed Gobert down the stretch Tuesday with his ability to set screens and get people open, especially Conley, with whom he has a solid pick-and-roll chemistry.
Conley said the Wolves are still trying to find a balance between their free-flowing offense — which worked just fine for three quarters on Tuesday night when the Wolves built a 15-point lead — and having more play calls and structure in the final minutes.
"I think the structure helps. Because I think it allows guys to then make the hard cut because they know they have space to cut. They know where the guys are on the weak side. You just have a set that feels comfortable," Conley said. "We can get to that point. We just gotta use these next couple days to lock in on that and not worry about the three quarters of offense where we run and push and guys are getting open and stuff like that, but really lock in on those last five, six minutes of switching."
Conley said the Lakers' switching scheme bothered the Wolves, and teams that are able to switch effectively against Minnesota have found success throughout the season. Conley said this was similar to an issue the Jazz had in Utah when he was there.
"We had to be two different teams," Conley said. "When a switching team comes to us, we had to play with the pass more, we had to cut more, we had to slip screens more and play with a different pace than when they're in different coverages. I think that's what we have to learn. I think the next couple days I'll get with coach. We always talk about stuff all the time."
The Wolves have had players like Towns and now Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid injured, and Conley came to the team two months ago in a trade. These kind of situations could have helped the Wolves if they faced them with the same personnel earlier in the season. But they only have until Friday to figure some things out.