MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — With a roster full of some of the best young talent in the league and a new, playoff-tested coach to lead them, the Minnesota Timberwolves entered this season as a trendy pick to finally end a 12-year postseason drought.
Ten games into this still-young season, Tom Thibodeau finally erupted after watching his team give away yet another double-digit lead in a loss to the Charlotte Hornets that dropped them to 3-7.
It's not that the Timberwolves are losing games this season that has angered him. It's how they are losing them, with the same mistakes occurring over and over again, particularly during the third quarter of nearly every game.
"A big part of learning is trial and error. So when you go through something and it doesn't work, you should learn from it," Thibodeau said after a 115-108 loss to the Hornets on Tuesday. "The second time around, it shouldn't be the same way. That has to change and it has to change fast."
The Timberwolves have been one of the best offensive teams in the league this season, with Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine all showing skills that have fans cautiously hopeful that the franchise is finally ready to return to relevancy.
But they have been a disaster on defense and atrocious after halftime. They have been outscored by 91 points in their 10 third quarters this season, by far the worst margin in the league. Only one game this season have they outscored their opponent in that period — a 36-point win over Memphis in which the Grizzlies were resting stars Mike Conley and Marc Gasol.
The devastating ball movement that leads to wide open shots disappears, too. Thibodeau said his players "start holding and dancing with" the ball, which bogs down the flow. Contested jumpers lead to missed shots, which open up transition opportunities for their opponents.
The defense at the rim and on the perimeter is nonexistent. Layups, dunks and 3-pointers rain down on their heads as they scramble to get things under control. Wash, rinse, repeat.
"We're playing really well and it just turns and ruins the whole game," LaVine said Wednesday. "It ruins all our spirits. Going into the next game, you feel like you've got it figured out. We're up 15, 12 points and we're going good and it's a nosedive."
The results are familiar to fans. Target Center announced just 10,349 fans for the game against the Hornets on Tuesday. Average attendance during the five homes games is just over 13,000 per game in a building that holds close to 20,000, certainly not what the organization expected in the highly anticipated run-up to the season.
There are only so many promotions, so many giveaways, so many marketing tools the business side can use to sell tickets and spur interest. With a team that has been bad for this long, the fans are going to make them prove that things are different before they start investing.
"This is the best team I've ever been around," said point guard Ricky Rubio, in his sixth season with the Wolves. "I get mad thinking that we're wasting time. We're not learning. It's time to change."
The Wolves do have things to comfort them. They are the best team in the league in point differential in the first quarter, first in 3-point shooting percentage and fourth in offensive efficiency. Thibodeau is considered a defensive mastermind, so it could just be a matter of time before his new charges start to execute his system the way he wants to see it done.
But if they do want to make the playoffs and end that interminable drought, they know they have to get going soon.
"There is no easy way out. It's work," Thibodeau said. "We're more than capable of doing it. We just have to get it done."
This story has been corrected to show third quarter combined deficit is 91 points.