It was — and will likely remain — the worst fourth quarter of NBA basketball this season.
In 12 minutes of professional hoops, two teams combined to produce 21 points.
It’s one thing when such a retina-searing sequence emerges in the first quarter of a game, in a half-empty arena, between two teams playing the second half of a back-to-back after being in different time zones the night before.
The Denver Nuggets had two nights off before Wednesday night’s game in Minneapolis. The homestanding Minnesota Timberwolves had one night off.
The Northwest Division foes played an ordinary but reasonably interesting three quarters, with Denver leading by a 66-65 score after 36 minutes. The Nuggets and Wolves had worked themselves into a rhythm. They had taken dozens upon dozens of shots in various contexts against an array of defensive configurations.
Even with two teams more than 10 games below .500, a fourth quarter made for Wes Craven or any other horror-film maven was not on anyone’s top-10 expected occurrences list.
Yet, it happened, and for the losing Timberwolves, the weight of humiliation falls heavily upon the shoulders of head coach Sam Mitchell.
If one posits that Jeff Hornacek of Phoenix is the coach most likely to be fired during or after the current NBA season, the race for “second” is a tight one between Byron Scott of the Lakers and Wednesday night’s most burdened coach in the Association, Sam Mitchell.
While Phoenix and Hornacek were able to stop a nine-game losing skid with a win over an unraveling Charlotte side, the Timberwolves claimed the worst loss in the league on Wednesday, scoring just NINE POINTS in the fourth quarter of their 78-74 setback at home.
Losing to a 12-23 (now 13-23) Denver team was bad enough, but the circumstances surrounding the defeat offer ample reason to suggest that when this season runs its course, the Timberwolves will search for a new leader. They had their leader in Flip Saunders, but cancer took him away from the Wolves, Minnesota, and the NBA family. Mitchell shouldn’t get a pink slip in the middle of the season, precisely because he didn’t expect to be a head coach when this season began, but when game 82 is in the books, it’s hard to think that Minnesota can — or should — keep Mitchell any longer.
The details surrounding Wednesday’s fourth quarter do not paint a pretty picture:
Minnesota limited Denver to 12 points… and was outscored in the quarter.
The Timberwolves allowed Denver to win its first game of the season when scoring under 100 points.
Minnesota had just lost to the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday, bringing forth a team meeting.
Denver shot 35.8 percent for the game… and won on the road.
The Timberwolves — despite limiting Denver to 12 points in that fourth-quarter — squandered what had been a 10-point lead earlier in the second half.
The facts speak more eloquently than any editorializing or analysis ever could: Two nights after losing to the worst team in the league (Philadelphia) and resolving to be better, the Timberwolves played their worst fourth quarter of the entire season. What’s more is that Minnesota started the season a very respectable 8-8. The month of November was decent on an absolute scale, and tremendous relative to the team’s standing at the end of the 2014-2015 season.
One of the central jobs of coaches is to cultivate skills, developing players so that they are more fully formed than they were at the start of the season. With the Timberwolves, the clear and damning trajectory of this season is one of marked regression. That, more than the nine-point fourth quarter itself, makes it hard to buy Mitchell as the man who ought to lead the T-Wolves into a future laden with promise.
We all want to forget about the NBA’s worst fourth quarter this season. Unfortunately, we can’t… and for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the power of this loss — real and symbolic — might be especially hard to shake in the coming months.