SALT LAKE CITY – The Timberwolves knew December was going to be a daunting month. Entering it every team on their schedule was .500 or better. They didn’t know that COVID would wreak havoc on their roster and around the NBA as they went through it, making it daunting for another reason.
One reason the schedule was so tough was Utah was on it three times, and three times Utah put the Wolves on the losing side of the ledger with Friday being a 120-108 Utah victory. Those three losses contributed to Minnesota’s 5-9 record for the month.
To hear coach Chris Finch tell it, the month as he sees it isn’t over.
“For as far as I’m concerned we’re in the never-ending COVID month,” Finch said. “We just got to get out of this, try to get healthy and everyone back and re-find our rhythm at that point. Guys slowly are coming back. Got more firepower tonight.”
That they did in Jarred Vanderbilt and Anthony Edwards, who showed little rust in scoring 26 points, but the Wolves were still without Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, who remain in COVID protocols.
Utah had Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Bojan Bogdanovich available, and that was enough to beat the still undermanned Wolves.
The Wolves had enough to compete Friday night, but only for three quarters.
They led 87-86 after quarters but Utah ended the night early in the fourth with a 22-0 run in which it held the Wolves scoreless for 5 minutes, 11 seconds. The Wolves went cold and that was that.
The Wolves also didn’t help their cause with a foul-happy first half in which Utah marched to the free-throw line 26 times on 18 Wolves fouls.
“The fouling was not a result of being overly physical. The fouling is a result of not being physical enough,” Finch said. “Lot of ticky-tack fouls out there. … We gave the ball way too much respect in the first half. We weren’t really aggressive on it and we didn’t contain it or really get after it like the way we normally do and can do.”
Mitchell finished with 39 points while Bogdanovich had 29. Malik Beasley pitched in 22 for the Wolves on 8 of 16 shooting. Edwards said he felt “super tired” in part because of the elevation but didn’t feel like his conditioning was that far off from where he was before entering protocols.
“We competed, I feel like and we just didn’t make shots in the fourth,” Edwards said.
BOXSCORE: Utah 120, Wolves 108
The Wolves already have a thin margin for error when fully healthy, and being down two of their best players against a perennial playoff team who is playing with most of its key players in their building meant the Wolves had to play nearly a perfect game. That can be hard to do when Finch has to shuffle lineups and shuffle players in and out of the rotation.
“We practiced like twice in the last 20 days or whatever, so it’s tough,” said Vanderbilt, who had five points and seven rebounds. “When you got guys that’s really never played together, it’s tough to know some of their tendencies, the timing and everything, the rhythm, and knowing where guys are going to be are going to be a little bit off.
“At the end of the day we’re professionals so it’s our job to figure it out.”
That’s not to say the Wolves are dispirited as they exit December and enter January, when the schedule will soon lighten with some of the bottom teams in the West coming up after a trip to Los Angeles to face the Lakers and Clippers.
The Wolves kept their head above water in the playoff race, at least, and were in ninth place in the West after Friday. Now if they could just get everyone back.
“I mean, how many games were we at full strength in December?” Edwards said. “Utah beat us at full strength at home, which was a good win, but other than that, I don’t think we were fully loaded for anybody else in December.”