'Mentally heavy' Wolves look for home court comfort

The writing is on the wall for what’s been a frustrating and tumultuous season for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Wolves are 30-35 and are 6.5 games out of the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference playoffs with 17 games to play in the regular season. They’re not mathematically eliminated yet, but a 2-4 stretch out of the NBA All-Star break likely sealed their fate in what’s become a lost season.

In their latest test, interim coach Ryan Saunders was less than pleased with the officiating and Taj Gibson was ejected for the second time this season in a 131-114 loss at Detroit Wednesday night. The Wolves were down just two entering the fourth quarter, but were out-scored 41-26 over the final 12 minutes.

It’s the latest example of a rough finish in what’s been a frustrating season full of change. Luol Deng, who has missed the last four games, said Friday the team is “mentally heavy.”

“We wanted to turn it around, but it’s not easy to turn it around in the NBA during the season. Early on in the season with everything that’s going on, with Ryan taking the job and the energy going the right direction, the last run that we’ve had I really feel a lot of guys mentally, we just seem a bit mentally heavy, just a lot going on,” Deng said. “In this game, most of the teams doing well in the winning, the only thing on their mind is just basketball. I just feel like a lot of changes this year, the guys have done a good job. It’s very painful to watch right now. I know that we really wanted to make the playoffs and make that push to change the whole season.”

Interim head coach Ryan Saunders isn’t giving up on the season just yet. He refuses to until the math says otherwise. Saunders is now 11-14 as the team's head coach.

“We’re not going to say where the season is at or anything like that. We’re competing. We’re not out of it until we’re out of it,” Saunders said. “We’re competing, so we’re going to put forth the best team on the court.”

Saunders made those comments as Robert Covington will miss his 29th straight game Saturday night with a bone bruise in his right knee. He was doing light shooting in practice this week and had practiced in Iowa with the G League affiliate.

Saunders said there were no setbacks for Covington and they continue to monitor him, but there is no timetable for a return. The Wolves are 13-15 without Covington on the floor.

They’ve missed him on the defensive end of the floor, which continues to be the team’s most consistent issue. They’ve allowed at least 120 points in five straight games, and six of seven. The Timberwolves also had one of the worst defensive ratings in the NBA in a road trip of losses at Atlanta, Indiana and Washington.

It left players searching for answers in what's been a lost season.

The one thing that has been consistent has been Karl-Anthony Towns. He’s been one of the best players in the NBA since missing two games after the All-Star break in the concussion protocol. He was in an accident with a semi-truck on his way to travel with the team to New York.

In his last six games, Towns is averaging 36 points and 14 rebounds per game. It’s been quite the comeback after Towns began is NBA career with 303 consecutive starts.

“You can always point to when you go through something and you can shift your mindset back to really what you need to focus on in a lot of ways,” Saunders said. “It kind of brings you back to if you’re out for a game, you see how much you really miss it and how much you really value it.”

The reality is for a multitude of reasons, the Timberwolves won’t be involved in the NBA postseason for the 14th time in 15 seasons. The focus in the last 17 games will be competing every night.

“We all want more. I don’t know if discouraged is the right word. We all want more, so we’re just going to keep working to try to get more,” Saunders said.

The Timberwolves host the Wizards Saturday and Knicks Sunday before a three-game road trip at Denver, Utah and Houston. The Wolves are 21-10 at Target Center this season.