MINNEAPOLIS (AP) After the latest loss in a season that has been full of them for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Karl-Anthony Towns sat at his locker with his face buried in his hands.
For at least the third time this season, the 21-year-old NBA sophomore put the entire blame on himself and his perceived inability to lead a young and promising roster out of the abyss.
''The more losses we keep accumulating, the more it feels like it's my fault,'' Towns said after the massively disappointing Wolves fell to 5-12 with a 112-103 home loss to the Utah Jazz on Monday night. ''I've got to look myself in the mirror and I've got to play better. I've got to play a level where we can't lose and help my teammates out the best I can. I didn't do that tonight. I haven't done it recently.''
That kind of accountability can be admirable on its face. It shows that Towns is invested in turning one of the league's perennial losers into a playoff team for the first time in 13 years. But that pressure can also be crushing, and the team that many observers pegged for a breakout season after adding coach Tom Thibodeau last summer appears to be playing with a weight on its shoulders that has been too heavy to carry as the season nears the quarter pole.
With Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio and Kris Dunn, the Timberwolves have one of the most athletic and exciting young rosters in the league. But the enthusiasm and ebullience that so often comes with youth is nowhere to be found on the faces of these Wolves during games. They play with a joylessness that belies their billing as the league's Next Big Thing, as if 12 years of failure that this core has had little to do with is serving as cement around their shoes.
They went into the locker room at halftime on Monday night down just five points. By the looks on their faces and the slumps in their shoulders, one would have thought the deficit was 20.
Towns - the reigning rookie of the year - is right in one respect. He has struggled mightily on the defensive end after showing so much potential there as a rookie. He must play better and give more consistent effort in that area if the Wolves are going to pull themselves out of the doldrums they reside in at the moment.
''All these losses fall on my shoulders,'' Towns said. ''None of the coaching staff. None of my teammates. This is my fault. I don't think it's anyone's fault but myself. It's something I've got to fix. I've got to change for the better for us. I guess it's back to the drawing board tomorrow.''
Clearly, the responsibility lies more than just with Towns. Their point guard play has been subpar, their bench almost nonexistent and Thibodeau has not yet parlayed his mastery of strategy and Xs and Os into a workable formula for this particular group.
He seethed in his postgame remarks after the Jazz loss, calling the second and fourth quarters a ''disaster'' and vowing to get to the bottom of the issues that plague them.
''It's very concerning from the standpoint of you want to be making progress,'' Thibodeau said. ''That's the important thing. Every day make progress, make progress. We didn't make progress today. That's something that has to be corrected.''
Players collectively appear to be at a loss.
''The messages are getting through, but there's a difference between saying something and actually doing it,'' Wiggins said.
Three starters are 21 and the only true veteran playing significant minutes is Rubio, who missed time earlier in the season with a sprained elbow and has not played in three straight fourth quarters. Brandon Rush and Cole Aldrich, the two veterans the Wolves signed in the summer to buttress the young core, are playing scant minutes. That has forced the youngsters to have to grow up even faster from a leadership perspective, which may be an even bigger challenge than rising up against Rudy Gobert at the rim.
''It's something I know I can carry,'' Towns said. ''I never said it was going to be easy. But it's something I know I can deal with.''
It all adds up to a player, and a team, that is too tight. The competitive fire that drives so many of them right now threatens to burn down their own house and has led, Towns said, to many a sleepless night as they search for answers.
''It's been long, long nights,'' Towns said. ''Again, it's going to be one of those nights, I guess. You're just trying to find ways to win.''
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