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Brian Murphy: Minnesota hearts are Wolves' for the taking despite primetime stumble

The Wolves were celebrated on ESPN all-day Friday, only to lose to the Bucks.

ESPN invaded Minneapolis Friday to stage a coming-out party for the Timberwolves, who are a tenured franchise unbeknownst to most NBA fans and their bicoastal attention spans.

The network flooded the zone from the all-access cameras and microphones that stalked the team and parade of Wolves players who populated the daytime gab fests to the 9:15 p.m. nationally televised tipoff that gifted the weekend faithful an extra two hours for pregame boozing.

There was ESPN carnival barker Stephen A. Smith cuddling in courtside seats with co-owner Alex Rodriguez and sucking the oxygen out of the air from Bristol to the Warehouse District. The Wolves have emerged in 2024 as the NBA’s feel-good story because they are the polar opposite of the super-teams that dominate streetball and the marquee matchups that drive the national conversation.

A defensive powerhouse in the middle of flyover country dutifully taking an ax to a 34-year history defined by dysfunction and irrelevance. With palm trees, umbrella drinks and a weeklong vacation dancing in most players’ heads, Minnesota ripped off four straight wins entering the all-star break, brightening the halo of credibility and possibility that has this team basking in a warm glow. Head coach Chris Finch helmed the Western Conference all-stars, a franchise first, as the grand poobah of the conference’s reigning club.

Feb 23, 2024; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) argues after he was charged with a foul against the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 23, 2024; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) argues after he was charged with a foul against the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half at Target Center

All of which made Friday night’s 112-107 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks at Target Center such a buzzkill. Not because of its practical effects, but the optics. Losing to an Eastern Conference team takes the edge off, even a regressing one like the Bucks, who are searching for an identity under recently hired coach Doc Rivers less than three years after winning an NBA title.

However, the Wolves (39-16) were "soft" and "sloppy" and "lethargic," according to Finch. They flailed offensively most of the night and utterly collapsed defensively in the third quarter, when Milwaukee torched them 36-13 and turned a six-point halftime deficit into a 17-point fourth-quarter cushion. Turnovers plagued Minnesota throughout while their normally reliable three-point shooting turned to mush. Poor shot selection added the icing.

"It’s just a maturity thing at times," Finch said. "I don’t know if distracted is the case. I thought we fought the game a lot tonight … really fought it." Rusty? No doubt. But the Bucks knocked theirs off and answered the bell after dropping seven of their first 10 under Rivers. It was a lost opportunity to pick up where the Wolves left off in their first home game in three weeks.

Friday was the start of a season-long, seven-game homestand that continues Saturday against Brooklyn. These are no longer games at Target Center. They are an event. No small distinction in a championship-starved market that is thirsting more for a sustained playoff run.

It was considerate of the Twins in October to finally win a playoff game, and then a series, unleashing Royce Lewis’ star power and unyoking two decades of postseason letdowns with a tiptoe into the second round.

Meanwhile, the Vikings and Wild are sharing a corner booth in contending purgatory, unable or unwilling to quit cold turkey the competitive rebuilding that has turned both rosters into pillars of salt.

Minnesota’s collective heart is theirs for the taking if the Wolves keep opening doors, covering each pile of broken glass with a dinner jacket and picking up every tab in town. It’s an unfamiliar experience for franchise cornerstones Anthony Edwards and Karl Anthony Towns. And a long-lost feeling for fans who have waited 20 years for a playoff run.

"For a lot of the guys, it’s new, having this kind of attention and expectations," said veteran point guard Mike Conley. "I think right now we’re just trying to take it in stride. It’s about being consistent and disciplined right now. I think we have the group of guys that can do that."

Resilience also is the lifeblood of a contending team. The Wolves have only lost consecutive games once – Jan. 1 and 3 against the Knicks and Pelicans, respectively. 

The spotlight on them is burning brighter and hotter as the NBA enters the dog days of its schedule. No time for wilting. The waiting’s gone on long enough.