Timberwolves need Shake Milton and the bench to get going

It had been a struggle for much of the game for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who chased the Sacramento Kings all over the court and were a step behind. They were down 22 points in the second quarter but clawed their way back into it and needed an offensive spark in the third quarter.

After Karl-Anthony Towns hit a 3-pointer, the Wolves got a stop and Shake Milton headed back up the court in semi-transition with Naz Reid on his wing. But Milton put a little too much zip on a shovel pass and it glanced off Reid’s hand for a turnover. That came about a minute after Milton was dribbling up the court and just lost the ball out of bounds on an unforced error.

Milton also missed both of his shots in the quarter, one in which the Wolves managed to score just 15 points en route to a 124-111 loss to the Kings, their first home defeat in eight games this season. Several factors contributed to the loss, including their previously top-ranked defense getting shredded by the Kings’ superior ball movement and dead-eye shooting in the first half. But one of the early struggles during an otherwise terrific start to the season for the team has been an inability to get scoring from their second-unit backcourt.

Anthony Edwards has been tremendous this season, and he played well again on Friday night with 35 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two blocks. But Minnesota has watched its offense crater when Edwards goes to the bench. The Wolves are a staggering 17.8 points per 100 possessions better on offense when Edwards is on the floor this season versus when he rests, per Cleaning the Glass.

Yes, Edwards is playing at a high level. Another reason that number is so large is that Milton has yet to find a rhythm in his first season in Minnesota. He is averaging just 5.7 points per game and shooting 37.8 percent from the field and 24 percent from 3, anemic numbers compared to his career in Philadelphia.

The Wolves bench was outscored by Sacramento 45-25. Malik Monk scored 17 and Kessler Edwards added 10 for the Kings, who ran circles around Minnesota’s defense. Troy Brown had 10 points and seven rebounds in his best game with the Wolves, but he was the only bench player in double figures. Milton had just two points on 1-of-6 shooting.

“I don’t think we’ve had enough punch off the bench in general,” coach Chris Finch said. “Some sloppy play off the bench, too. But that’s not been the norm. They might not have always scored, but they’ve always played a little sharper than that.”

The Wolves signed Milton away from the 76ers believing he could give them the scoring and playmaking with the second unit that Jaylen Nowell could not deliver last season. He had a strong preseason, hitting open shots and getting to the basket, but it hasn’t translated to the regular season. Finch has used him both on the ball and off of it and has hung with him through the struggles, hoping a show of confidence will help get Milton going.

Milton shot 37.8 percent from 3 last season for the Sixers and put up some big scoring numbers, most often when he was in the starting lineup. This season he has reached double figures just three times, with a high of 12 points against his former team on Wednesday night.

Milton is certainly not solely to blame for the bench’s struggles. The normally reliable Kyle Anderson had just four points against the Kings and the Wolves were outscored by 24 points in his 18 minutes on the court. After a great start to the season, Reid has hit a cold streak, averaging 10.0 points and shooting 26 percent from 3.

“Something that’s been kind of up and down for us is our bench production,” Finch said. “Right now we’re struggling a little bit with it. But I also believe that our defense kind of dropped off, too, more than anything else.”

The Kings racked up 38 points in the first quarter, hit 11 of their first 15 3-pointers and 17 for the game. It was arguably the first time this season that a team made the bigger Wolves look plodding on that end for an entire game. They spread the Wolves out, strafed them from the outside and De’Aaron Fox, who had 36 points and 12 assists, carved them up. Harrison Barnes got off to a quick start getting loose against Towns at power forward, and Minnesota just couldn’t seem to keep up.

Sacramento is the perfect example of one guy handling and four shooters running around, so it was a good test for us,” Rudy Gobert said. “I know that we’re going to learn a lot from that game tonight.”

Towns had 27 points, 11 rebounds and four assists and the Wolves were able to trim the deficit down to two points in the third quarter. But every time they inched closer to Sacramento, Fox seemed to hit a big 3 or get into the paint for a pull-up jumper.

The Wolves certainly missed Jaden McDaniels in this one. Alexander-Walker did his best to make Fox work for his points, forcing him into 14-of-32 shooting. But the Wolves needed McDaniels’ length to try and get better contests both on Fox in the midrange and in the various shooters around the 3-point line.

All of the scrambling on defense made it difficult for the Wolves to control the defensive boards. It’s been an issue all season, and Sacramento grabbed 14 offensive rebounds that led to 26 points. The Kings entered the game 25th in the league in 3-point accuracy at 34.4 percent but hit 48.6 percent from deep against Minnesota. The Wolves could explain this as just one of those nights where their opponent was uncharacteristically hot, but Sacramento’s ball movement led to open shot after open shot, so in some ways, the Wolves got what they deserved on that front.

Sacramento’s win clinched Group C in the In-Season Tournament, assuring the Kings that they will move on to the knockout round. The Wolves will need a lot of help to get to the next round. With the point differentials looming large, the Wolves would need to beat Oklahoma City on Tuesday by eight more points than the Warriors beat Sacramento to win the group and advance to the quarterfinals. A wild card is even more unlikely because the Wolves would have to blow the Thunder out and get some help from other teams in the West.

The Wolves very much want to advance in the In-Season Tournament. The chance at winning something for a franchise that has never won anything means something to them, and the cash prize that comes with it is also a motivating factor. But more pressing is getting the bench going on offense.

“There were a lot of good passes to be had out there. When we did make them, we didn’t knock down shots,” Finch said. “I just think we had to make them a little more consistently.”

(Photo of Shake Milton: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

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