The second half of the Timberwolves' 103-99 loss to the Knicks on Sunday encapsulated the overarching theme of their season in 24 minutes of basketball.
When Karl-Anthony Towns had to sit because of foul trouble early in the third quarter, the Wolves fell apart and trailed by 21 points. When he re-entered early in the fourth it changed the trajectory of the game and how the opponent had to defend the Wolves — and like a lot of Wolves games this season, it ended short of a win.
Behind Towns' 27 points and 15 rebounds, the Wolves erased that 21-point deficit to lead by one late, but they couldn't hold it, nor score at key moments down the stretch to extend their lead. Malik Beasley scored just six while Ricky Rubio had 18. Julius Randle had 25 for the Knicks while R.J. Barrett had 21.
Towns took over the game early in the fourth, as he tried to will the Wolves all the way back. New York's Nerlens Noel was helpless to stop him inside or outside.
After halftime, the Wolves adjusted their game plan from the first half to feed Towns as much as possible.
But Towns had to sit because of foul trouble. With the Wolves down 67-58, Towns was called for an illegal screen with 8 minutes, 34 seconds remaining in the third, and the Wolves kept going down from there.
He sat on the bench as the Knicks picked apart the Wolves, who seemed disinterested to stop New York. Barrett had nine in the quarter while Randle added another seven.
The Knicks went on a 11-2 run after Towns exited to grab a 78-60 lead. They led by as much as 21 before the Wolves made a run at the end of the third and early fourth quarter when they rattled off 10 straight points to cut the lead to 87-77.
Then Towns took over.
He pressed the Knicks from there as he hit a pair of threes and his teammates fed off that energy as Edwards and Beasley each hit triples. The Wolves also finally started getting stops on the defensive end. By the 5:17 mark they were down just 93-91, then a Towns bucket gave them a 96-95 lead and a 98-97 lead on a pair of free throws.
But after Randle hit a pair of free throws to put the Knicks ahead 99-98 with 32 seconds remaining, Towns missed in the lane at the other end. Alec Burks put the Wolves up three with a pair of free throws with 20.9 left. Rubio hit one of two free throws and Burks hit another pair to clinch it.
The Wolves started the night with an 8-2 lead as Towns and Rubio were hitting early. But after scoring those eight points within the first two minutes of the first quarter, the Wolves scored just 10 the rest of the first. The Knicks led 30-18 as New York's defense did what Thibodeau designed it to do — keep opponents away from the basket. The Wolves didn't shoot a free throw in the first quarter. The Knicks also held Beasley scoreless — he didn't attempt a three — in the first as the only Wolves who scored were Towns, Rubio and Anthony Edwards. The rest of the team was 0-for-7.
Rubio was the Wolves' most reliable source of scoring in the first half as he finished with 15 at the half. The Knicks are the slowest-paced team in the league, so even though they built a 12-point lead after the first quarter, they aren't built to run away with a lead. Naz Reid got to the free-throw line six times early in the second as the Wolves' bench chipped away at the Knicks' lead against their second unit. It also helped that the Wolves, for their struggles getting to the hoop, shot 8-for-18 from three-point range in the first half.
The Wolves were within 40-35 after Jarred Vanderbilt's layup with 5:40 to play in the second, but behind Randle, who had 12 in the first half, the Knicks rebuilt that to 11, 61-50, by halftime. Randle pulled a spin move on Vanderbilt that led to a three-point play late in the half.
The third quarter is when the wheels fell off for the Wolves. They got them back on thanks to Towns, but not enough to beat the Knicks to the finish line.
The Star Tribune reporter did not travel for this game. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews before and/or after the game.