MINNEAPOLIS — Target Center went dark at 7:08 p.m. local time Wednesday. Shrills from the sellout crowd, anticipation stored up for nearly eight years, reverberated as it braced for the introduction of the fifth member of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ lineup. They were waiting for Kevin Garnett, the reason they showed up in droves to watch a last-place basketball team face the Washington Wizards, to be announced for his first game in a Timberwolves uniform since April 2007.
“The event is almost bigger than the game in some ways,” Timberwolves Coach Flip Saunders said before the contest.
Saunders was worried his young team would be too excited, too rattled by the celebration. The Timberwolves began unnerved, but by the night’s conclusion, the Wizards proved to be the ones flustered. Washington, undermanned because of injury, turned in arguably its worst performance of the season, a 97-77 clunker, to extend its losing streak to five games against a team residing in the Western Conference basement. The Wizards have dropped 10 of 12 and sit just a half-game ahead of the sixth-place Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference standings.
Washington (33-25) shot a paltry 37.9 percent from the floor, committed 19 turnovers (one night after compiling 26 in a loss to the Golden State Warriors), had just three players score in double figures and was held to a season low point total against the team ranked last in the NBA in defensive rating. The Wizards went just 4 for 18 from the three-point line and took just eight free throw attempts. The Timberwolves outscored Washington 23-7 at the line.
“It’s terrible,” Coach Randy Wittman said of the free throw disparity. “We’re not putting the ball on the floor from the wing and attacking.”
Spacing on the offensive end, already a problem at full strength, worsened without shooting threats Bradley Beal and Paul Pierce, who both sat out with injuries. The lack of options made it difficult for point guard John Wall to find driving lanes. Wall scuffled as a result. The all-star point guard shot just 2 for 10, finishing with a season-low five points and 10 assists. Otto Porter Jr., starting for Pierce, led the Wizards with 13 points. Marcin Gortat had nine points and 15 rebounds.
“People are clogging it up a little more, making it more difficult for John,” said Garrett Temple, who started for Beal and tallied 11 points.
Beal (fibula) missed his seventh straight game. Before the contest he said he hopes to play Friday against the Philadelphia 76ers. Pierce, Garnett’s teammate for six seasons with the Boston Celtics, bruised his right knee late in Washington’s loss to Golden State and was a late scratch. He attempted to warm up but winced as soon he put one shot up and walked off the court.
“We’re banged up, but we can’t feel sorry for ourselves,” Wittman said. “No one else but who is in that room is going to get this turned around. That’s the reality of it. We’ve got to get through it.”
The Wizards appeared to be just fine without the two scorers early. They jumped out to leads of 13-1 and 18-3 as Minnesota (13-43) missed its first 11 shots from the field and was held to just 11 points in the first quarter, the fewest Washington has surrendered in a period all season.
But the Wizards couldn’t capitalize on Minnesota’s troubles — they shot 32 percent to the Timberwolves’ 23.8 percent — and the youthful Timberwolves, who committed eight turnovers in the first quarter, found their composure in the second period, outscoring Washington 31-22 to tie the game at halftime. The first half concluded with Garnett blocking Drew Gooden III’s corner three-pointer, pumping his fist with excitement and dashing off the floor to the locker room.
More bad news for the Wizards emerged during the intermission, when the team announced Kris Humphries was lost for the game with a strained left groin. The Timberwolves, who were paced by Kevin Martin’s game-high 28 points, proceeded to dismantle Washington 32-18 and go 11 for 11 from the line in the third quarter.
“We couldn’t make no shots,” Wall said. “We went a slump, and they started getting to the free throw line and scoring. So basically we lost the game letting them get to a rhythm and the free throw line.”
Washington seemed to play a willing victim in Garnett’s return. The future Hall of Famer’s career is in twilight, but he showed Wednesday he can still score a few points, grab some rebounds and supply his trademark defensive intensity in spurts.
He missed his first shot, his signature midrange jumper from the wing, but blocked Nene’s hook shot 30 seconds later. He scored his first point at the free throw line in the second quarter as chants of “M-V-P!” cascaded. He finished with five points, eight rebounds and two blocks in 19 minutes.
The Timberwolves treated his return like a special occasion. They compiled special video clips and dug up old ones for breaks in action. They booked singer Montell Jordan to perform “This Is How We Do It,” his No. 1 hit from 1995, released months before Garnett made his NBA debut. A heavy-set man danced with his shirt off and “WELCOME HOME, KG” painted on his body during a timeout in the third quarter on the video board, and Garnett acknowledged the effort with a wave and smile.
Garnett checked out for the final time with the Timberwolves up 20 points and 1 minute 49 seconds left to chants of “KG!” The night belonged to the veteran and, ultimately, the Timberwolves.
More on the Wizards and the NBA:
Box score: Timberwolves 97, Wizards 77
Postgame: Beal hopes to play Friday vs. 76ers
D.C. Sports Bog: Season tickets going up for second season in a row
Early Lead: Minnesota welcomes back Garnett
D.C. Sports Bog: G-Wiz wins dance-off
Fancy Stats: Bucks could benefit from other teams’ woes