Two days earlier, quietly sitting in front of his locker after another Timberwolves loss, Karl-Anthony Towns said he had to do more, play better, put more of a burden on his broad shoulders.
And then he did.
Wednesday night against the New York Knicks at Target Center, in his 100th NBA game, taking full advantage of Joakim Noah’s absence, Towns hit the boards, scored in droves and played with intensity. He scored a career-high 47 points, grabbed 18 rebounds, blocked three shots and had a steal.
And the Wolves still lost 106-104 when Carmelo Anthony — who had missed four of his first 15 shots — hit an 18-footer with 2.3 seconds left.
Same old story, right? Defensive lapses — this time in the second quarter — doomed the Wolves (5-13) to a third straight loss and fifth in six games.
This time, despite a horrid second quarter, the Wolves may have found something. Down 17 with 7:42 left, they found their defense. Getting stop after stop, the Wolves rallied to tie the score, twice, the last time on Towns’ two free throws with 24.2 seconds left.
Not that it was any consolation.
“We did a good job down the stretch, playing defense, making ’em miss,’’ said Towns, who scored 22 points in the first quarter, four in the second, 10 in the third and 11 in the fourth. “We had to make two plays, and we didn’t.’’
The first: Gorgui Dieng rebounded Andrew Wiggins’ miss and fed Zach LaVine for a game-tying three-pointer with 49.8 seconds left. Moments later Kristaps Porzingis (29 points, eight rebounds, four assists) — who might have gone over Dieng’s back — flushed a Knicks miss.
“It’s my responsibility to get that rebound,’’ Dieng said.
The second: After Towns hit two free throws, out of a timeout, with Wiggins all over him, Anthony made the 18-footer.
“He made a tough shot,” said Wiggins, who scored 19 while holding Anthony to 14 points on 5-for-16 shooting. “That’s what makes him great.’’
The Wolves didn’t get a shot off on their final possession, but after yet another loss, there might have been a glimmer.
After being outscored 30-18 in the second quarter, the Wolves outscored the Knicks 55-48 in the second half while holding New York to 37 percent shooting.
“Well, the thing is, the urgency was there,’’ Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “But the urgency needs to be there from the beginning, through the game. When the intensity got to where it needed to be, it was the fourth quarter and we were down big.’’
No, it wasn’t perfect. The Wolves allowed too much dribble penetration in the first half. They closed that down in the second half, but then faltered at defending the three, allowing the Knicks to hit nine of their 11 three-pointers in the final two quarters. Again the Wolves bench, outscored 43-5, was a big problem.
But this time it was defense that nearly brought them all the Wolves back.
“The defense is what is going to give us a way to get out of so many losses,’’ said Ricky Rubio, who found himself back in the fourth-quarter mix. “The fourth quarter is an example that this team is willing to change.’’
But that change needs to come soon.
“We’ve got to put it together,”’ Towns said. “But I’m so proud of all my teammates, the fight we have, to come back and find a way to put ourselves back in the game. That’s why so many people see potential in us to be great.’’