The Timberwolves have played four games since Karl-Anthony Towns went down with a wrist injury, and in their first game without him last week, the Lakers jumped all over them, essentially ending the game with a 40-point first quarter. Two nights later the Clippers used a monster second quarter to take a 20-point halftime lead in their victory, and Friday the Wizards outscored the Wolves by 26 in the third quarter on their way to an easy win.
So naturally it would follow that in their fourth game without Towns, the quarter that doomed the Wolves during their 124-109 loss to the Nuggets was … the fourth.
The Wolves left the third quarter Sunday with an 84-83 lead, but within six minutes of the fourth, they were down double digits despite playing some of their best basketball since Towns left the lineup. The Nuggets went on a 17-0 run that spanned 4 minutes, 22 seconds.
The Wolves, however, were trying to accentuate the positive after a tough week without Towns. It couldn't get much worse than the three consecutive blowouts they suffered, and at least Sunday's game featured some encouraging signs, such as D'Angelo Russell coming alive in the third quarter to give the Wolves a temporary lead. Russell finished with 18 points and seven assists.
"It's hard to win in this league. I don't think we're ready to win yet," Russell said. "We're still figuring out how to lose. Sounds crazy, but the way you lose says a lot about the team. [Sunday], how we lost was a good way to lose. We did the right things throughout the game."
Except when it came to that fourth quarter. Coach Ryan Saunders took timeouts twice during the Nuggets' big push, but the Wolves couldn't stop it.
"I wish I had more than seven timeouts. But I don't ..." Saunders said. "We're still working through some things and it's really about us valuing every possession as a singular possession and not thinking we need to make a home-run play or home-run defensive stance to stop the bleeding, but us to focus on winning that one possession."
On those possessions, Nikola Jokic, who dealt with foul trouble in the first half, started mincing the Wolves defense to finish with 19 points and 12 rebounds. The Nuggets also got a boost off the bench from Facundo Campazzo, who had 12 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter. The Wolves were down 104-88 by the time they ended their scoring drought at the 7:01 mark.
"I think as a young team, or a team that hasn't been together, we tend to shy away from each other," said Malik Beasley, who scored 25 points. "So when things get bad, we've got to make sure we grab each other, hold each other accountable and be there for each other, trust each other. That will come over time."
Jamal Murray scored 26 of his 36 points in the first half as Denver established an early lead.
But it was an early deficit the Wolves were able to overcome with a third quarter that featured aesthetically pleasing basketball from the Wolves and their best player without Towns — Russell.
After going 2-for-8 in the first half, Russell went 4-for-6 with four assists and a steal. Russell had been struggling with Towns out of the lineup and admitted the Wolves and he had to relearn how to operate their offense without Towns. His night was a positive development for a team grasping for good news, even if he said not much changed for him on the floor.
"I didn't find anything," Russell said. "I think we kind of got stops as a group and the ball happened to be in my hands for open looks and I just happened to make them. It wasn't nothing different for me."
It led to different results for him on the court, but still nothing different in the win column.
"We still happen to be figuring things out," Russell said. "I thought we played well. I thought we played hard for 35 minutes and the rest of that kind of got away from us."