A team cannot live on shots alone. The Washington Wizards learned this sacred principle — again — after forsaking the defensive commandments Tuesday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Wizards entered the final quarter with an eight-point lead. But as their shots stopped falling, they could not keep the Wolves from getting to the rim or defend Minnesota’s deep shots from the perimeter. And especially, they could not contain center Karl-Anthony Towns.
Towns scored a game-high 37 points, including a corner three-pointer as the shot clock was winding down in the final 30 seconds that all but sealed a 116-111 win.
“We got to get stops and we’ve got to stop worrying about scoring,” Coach Scott Brooks said, echoing familiar words from earlier in the season. Recently, this complaint has reared again over the last week.
Although a late replay review gave the Wizards possession as they trailed by three with 15.3 seconds remaining, Towns showed that he’s more than just a scorer. He succeeded where the Wizards could not — on the defensive end.
On the key play, Bradley Beal caught the inbounds pass near the baseline, then attracted the attention of the suffocating 7-foot center. With Towns standing as close as a dance partner, Beal made an errant pass to Tomas Satoransky that was intercepted by Jeff Teague.
Brooks thought Towns had his hands all over Beal. As he spoke with reporters, Beal echoed this belief.
“He just pushed me out of bounds but it’s kind of a crazy pass for me to make just standing alone,” Beal said of Towns’s defense. “He was forcing me out so I had to get rid of it but it ended up being a bad turnover. That’s how it was.”
There was no whistle to save the Wizards. And they did not help themselves with a slow response in transition as Teague breezed to the rim for the dunk that accounted for the final margin.
“They made some shots, they got the momentum,” Markieff Morris said of the Wolves’ 34-point fourth quarter, “and never looked back.”
Late in the game, the Wizards (38-30) got one necessary stop when Satoransky played the lane and poked away a pass to Towns. Then, Satoransky delivered a behind-the-back beauty to Otto Porter Jr. for the fast break finish that trimmed the Wizards’ deficit to 109-106 with 1:52 left to play.
The flashy play aside, the Wizards’ defense did not stand up on the next possession when Wolves guard Jamal Crawford responded — one of the several big buckets for Minnesota (40-29).
“The most satisfying thing is getting a ‘W,’ ” Towns said. “That is the ultimate goal at the end of the day. It’s not about statistics. We got to make the playoffs, we can’t drop a game. It’s cool to have 50 points and win, but if you have 50 and an ‘L’ then it doesn’t mean anything. I would rather have two points and get a ‘W’ and win for the extra season and put ourselves in great position, rather than average a crazy amount of statistical numbers and not win at all.”
Minnesota made 13 of 18 shots in the fourth quarter (72.2 percent), including five three-pointers. For the game, Towns made 13 of 17 from the field and also had 10 rebounds and two blocks.
“I thought we played a lot better in the second half,” Wolves Coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The group that started the fourth played really well and that got us back in. I thought Kat was terrific.”
Towns, an all-star for the first time this season, has taken on an even more significant role since Jimmy Butler’s knee injury last month. Towns has averaged 22.1 points since Butler went down and his scoring prowess continued inside Capital One Arena.
Though the Wizards had big and capable bodies to match against Towns, he consistently overruled their size and effort.
In the second quarter, when Ian Mahinmi, the defensive specialist assigned to protect the rim, latched his 6-11, 262-pound frame to Towns, the young center still backed him deeper into the paint before hitting a hook shot through contact.
Later, before a minute had passed in the third, Towns had drawn two fouls on starter Marcin Gortat. Overall, the Wizards put Towns on the line for eight free throws and he made them all.
“Inside, out. He’s strong enough to play against a five man and quick enough to drive and shoot threes,” Morris said. “He had a really good game tonight. We couldn’t control him. He kept them in it.”
The point of fouling Towns instead of futilely watching him score might have been a team tactic. In the three previous games, the Wizards had played passive on defense. Opponents had totaled 196 points in the paint. As a response, Brooks stressed fundamentals.
“The ball needs to be stopped and then we have to have some rim protection,” Brooks said. “Whether you take a charge or put the guy on the free throw line or you block his shot, you got to do something instead of just watching it.
“Guys got to do it. I got to do a better job of making sure they understand that.”
Instead, the Wizards allowed Minnesota to score 64 points in the paint, ruining a night of solid offensive execution (they shot 51.2 percent) that included 27 points from Morris.
“Nothing, really, we lost,” Morris responded when asked what led to his big scoring night. “So it really don’t matter.”