Timberwolves have a 4th quarter problem that needs solving, and soon

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It’s time for the Minnesota Timberwolves to wake up.

The Wolves built a commanding lead in the Western Conference over the first two months of the season thanks to tenacious defense and cool execution in crunchtime. By the middle of January, they were 30-11 and had the look of a genuine contender. They survived a grueling stretch of their schedule and appeared set up to make a real surge with a series of games against struggling opponents.

This stretch has not served as a springboard but as a booby trap. After a 113-112 loss in San Antonio on Saturday night, the Wolves are 2-3 in their last five games, including a narrow victory over the Brooklyn Nets and a home loss to the Charlotte Hornets.

The numbers are glaring. Over the last five games, they have lost the fourth quarter by a combined 47 points, including a 33-22 disaster against San Antonio. The Wolves lost an 11-point lead to the Oklahoma City Thunder, a 15-point lead to the Hornets and a 10-point lead to the woeful Spurs. Their offensive rating in the fourth quarter in that span is a paltry 83.6 points per 100 possessions, while the defense is getting shredded to the tune of 128.1. That’s a minus-44.4 net rating, the second-worst mark in the league over the last five games.

The most troubling part of it all is that the Thunder are the only one of those five opponents with a winning record. The Wizards and Spurs are two of the worst teams in the league and the Nets are a starless team going nowhere. The Wolves prided themselves on their hot start by showing the maturity to win the games they were supposed to win after losing so many of those games last season. There has been slippage in that maturity of late, and the Spurs game was just the latest debacle.

Minnesota led San Antonio 90-80 entering the fourth quarter. The Wolves were shooting 60 percent from the field and 53 percent from 3-point range, but failed to build a bigger lead thanks to subpar defense.

Coach Chris Finch started the fourth with a lineup of Jordan McLaughlin, Shake Milton, Kyle Anderson, Naz Reid and Rudy Gobert. On a night when Mike Conley was out with a sore hamstring, Finch’s options were slightly limited, but this was still a lineup that didn’t give the Wolves much of a chance. Reid is the only shooter of the group, and for a team that has struggled to such a degree offensively, they just needed more firepower out there.

The Spurs outscored that lineup 10-2 in less than three minutes, prompting Finch to bring back Karl-Anthony Towns and Nickeil Alexander-Walker for Milton and Gobert.

In an entire season that just has not worked out for him, Milton shows few signs of turning the corner. Finch has said that he has liked Milton’s defense in recent outings, and he may be playing more to showcase him for a trade. But the offense just isn’t good enough on a team that is begging for some buckets off the bench. Troy Brown Jr. hasn’t been in the rotation since the middle of December, but his 3-point shooting could help provide some spacing for a team that has lacked it.

Anderson is so important to the team as a defender and playmaker, but his shooting weakness this season only seems to be getting worse as the season goes along.

Despite that unit’s struggles to start the fourth, the Wolves still held a 2-point lead against the nine-win Spurs with nine minutes to play and both Towns and Anthony Edwards on the floor. The two combined to shoot 6 for 11 for 14 points with two costly turnovers down the stretch. Both fell short defensively as well.

Towns only grabbed two rebounds in the quarter and Edwards let Jeremy Sochan walk him right to the basket.

The Spurs shot 65 percent in the quarter, including making 10 straight shots during a 15-2 run. Jaden McDaniels made a costly mistake when he fouled Keldon Johnson with 1.1 seconds on the shot clock in the final 10 seconds of the game. Johnson hit one of two free throws to give the Spurs the winning margin.

Edwards forced an ill-advised turnaround jumper at the free-throw line and inexplicably picked up his dribble to throw the final possession into chaos. It ended with Towns just missing a stepback jumper that would have won the game.

Edwards had 32 points, 12 assists and six rebounds and Towns had 19 points, five rebounds, four assists and two blocks. They are both teeming with individual talent and have to do a better job of combining their skills with sound decision-making to benefit the entire group.

Finch needs to help them with more effective rotations and, as he has often said, more play calls later in games. When Conley is off the floor, this team can become disorganized. It is no coincidence that this stretch of poor play comes at the same time that Conley has missed three of the games and was limited in a fourth against Brooklyn while recovering from an illness. That should make the priorities for President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly as the trade deadline approaches crystal clear. These Wolves need another floor general, another player who can settle things down and orchestrate offense when Conley is on the bench for a rest or the entire game.

Losses like this lay at everyone’s feet. Finch has to coach better, the stars have to lead better and the entire team has to understand that everything they built over the first two months is now teetering just a little bit.

What also must be considered is that this is just the kind of bad week that happens in a six-month regular season. The Wolves are 8-7 in January. Three of those losses are to the Knicks, Celtics and Thunder, which bring no shame. They also have wins over Dallas, the LA Clippers, and Orlando.

Last season the Denver Nuggets finished the regular season 9-10 before steamrolling to the championship. The Los Angeles Lakers were 29-34 before the trade deadline and went all the way to the Western Conference finals. This season, the Clippers lost their first five games with James Harden, but have figured things out and now look like a real threat in the conference.

That is not meant to say the Wolves should be expected to right the ship and cruise to a title the way the Nuggets did, but every good team goes through difficult points in the season. Finch is the second-winningest coach in franchise history. He has the Wolves tracking toward a third straight playoff appearance and has built what has been the best defense in the league by a wide margin.

Their problems, for the most part, appear fixable. They are 32-14 and in second place in the West. The cushion they built early in the season is serving them well now as they absorb this poor stretch. Cut down the turnovers, refine the decision-making and get the ball moving. Those are necessary but attainable improvements.

The Wolves have real issues to address right now. We have seen them play so much better. We have seen Finch coach better. We have seen the defense squeeze the life out of opponents and we have seen Edwards and Towns fill up the box score.

The schedule stiffens now, starting with the final game of this road trip in Oklahoma City on Monday. Maybe that is what the Wolves need more than anything. They look like a team taking opponents for granted, playing down to the competition in Washington, Brooklyn and San Antonio. If they do that in OKC, they will get throttled.

After an ugly week of basketball, it’s time for the team that spent two months on top of the conference to wake up.

(Top photo of Karl-Anthony Towns taking a shot against Dom Barlow of the Spurs: Scott Wachter / USA Today)

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