For Karl-Anthony Towns, a record-setting night is spoiled by a stomach-churning loss

With 2 minutes, 31 seconds left in the first half on Monday night, Karl-Anthony Towns caught the ball on the left wing and rose from well behind the 3-point line. When the ball splashed through, it was his eighth 3-pointer made in the game on eight tries. It gave him 41 points in a game that saw him have 44 at halftime, 50 with 22 minutes to play and 58 heading into the fourth quarter.

On the anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game against Toronto in 2006, anything seemed possible for Towns and the No. 1-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves against the lowly Charlotte Hornets. Everything, that is, except a loss.

For three quarters, the game was a celebration of the greatest shot-making night in Timberwolves history. A franchise-record 62 points, 10 made 3s and a flurry of dunks, free throws and drives to the basket against a Hornets team that seemed helpless to stop him. But the party turned into a disaster in the fourth quarter as the Hornets outscored Minnesota 36-18 and Towns’ shooting went cold, helping Charlotte stun the Timberwolves 128-125.

“I mean, it was an absolutely disgusting performance of defense and immature basketball,” Wolves coach Chris Finch said.

The No. 1-ranked defense in the NBA allowed the Hornets (10-31), who have the 27th-ranked offense in the league, to shoot 56.8 percent from the field. The Wolves (30-13) gift-wrapped Brandon Miller wide-open 3s, their perimeter defense was shredded by LaMelo Ball’s penetration and they allowed Charlotte to shoot 70 percent at the rim on its way to 58 points in the paint.

“It hurts,” Towns said. “You want to be able to have one of those nights in a win. Having a night like that on a loss doesn’t feel very good, historic, whatever you want to say. It doesn’t make me feel happy about the night we had.”

What became clear very early on was that Towns’ dazzling offensive display did more than mesmerize the Target Center crowd. It shifted the Timberwolves’ focus away from winning the game to doing whatever it could to get Towns as many points as possible.

Anthony Edwards appeared to be as taken by the explosion as anyone. With Towns rolling, he refused to shoot, instead feeding Towns over and over again. Edwards only took one shot in the first half and didn’t score until a layup with 3:09 to play in the third quarter.

“He hit his first six, seven shots, and I think everybody, pretty much, was just trying to see him go get 100 points,” Edwards said. “I know I was.”

Edwards piled up the assists, tying a career-high with 11 for the game, but he was almost too unselfish. That made it difficult for him to get in a rhythm, so when he was needed in the fourth quarter, he wasn’t locked in. He finished the game with nine points on 3-of-11 shooting.

“I mean, he got hot,” Edwards said of Towns. “I think all of us … wanted to see him get 80 or whatever it was.”

Adding to the distraction, Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid was having an enormous scoring night. When the Timberwolves went to halftime, they learned that Embiid had 59 points through three quarters in Philly against San Antonio. Players were buzzing as they came back to the court, asking assistant coaches for updates on where Embiid finished, so they could help Towns surpass it. Embiid finished with 70 points in a 133-123 victory over the Spurs.

For as many points as Towns was scoring through three quarters, much of it came in the flow of the offense. There were a few manufactured shots, to be sure, but he was 19 of 25 from the field and almost all of them were good, clean looks. Coaches and teammates have been encouraging him to shoot more 3s for weeks. The 14 attempts through three quarters were more than anyone imagined, but he made 10 of them so no one had an issue with him letting it fly.

All of that flow disappeared in the fourth quarter. The Timberwolves led by 15 points, a cushion big enough that they felt they had the license to play with the game, eschewing any kind of rational game plan to force-feed Towns. He started to force shots, including spinning baseline on a post touch to avoid a double-team and ending up with a tough shot that hit the bottom of the backboard. On another possession, he took a lightning-quick, catch-and-shoot 3 that was off the mark. Towns finished 2 of 10 in the fourth quarter, including 0 of 3 on 3s with one turnover.

“I just was being aggressive taking shots throughout the night that had looked good to me and that went in,” said Towns, who also turned the ball over seven times. “Just trying to be that with some emphasis on going downhill as well. Put the pressure on them defensively. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the job done.”

He missed a layup with four minutes to go that Charlotte turned into a 3-pointer by Nick Smith Jr. for a 120-119 Hornets lead. Charlotte went 6 of 10 from 3 in the period and shot 63.6 percent from the field, prompting Finch to bench Towns at one point as he searched for more defense.

Towns had the ball and a chance to win the game down one with 12 seconds to play, but Leaky Black blocked his drive to the rim. Replays showed that Black hit KAT’s arm on the play, but Finch wasn’t focusing on that in a blistering postgame interview session.

“We totally disrespected the game, ourselves, and we got exactly what we deserved,” Finch said.

A game like this will likely direct even more criticism toward Towns, one of the league’s biggest targets. He has long been labeled in some corners as a player who can put up big stats but does not impact winning. He has made big strides to dispel that narrative this season, embracing his move from center to power forward to accommodate Rudy Gobert, and happily sharing the spotlight with Edwards.

It won’t matter to them that Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and George Gervin also had games where they scored at least 60 points and their teams lost.

“Since shootaround, I’ve been telling my teammates how good I felt today about and how I felt today was going to go,” Towns said. “I didn’t see it ending like this. So that’s what’s difficult to deal with.”

But this loss wasn’t just on him. Edwards’ approach was off from the start, perhaps affected by an illness that caused him to be listed as questionable in the afternoon.

“I don’t even know what to say,” Edwards said. “I let us down tonight.”

Gobert was not his normal dominant self, especially early in the game against the small-ball Hornets, who were quicker to the rim. Jaden McDaniels was just 3-of-9 shooting and did not bring the defensive intensity he normally does. Kyle Anderson had a silly turnover in the fourth quarter as the Wolves were trying to hold the Hornets off. And Finch couldn’t find the right buttons to push on a night he knew early on that their heads were not in it.

“We’ve got a lot of basketball left to play, and that’s what our guys need to understand,” Finch said. “We haven’t done a thing yet. We haven’t accomplished a thing yet. We’ve got to play with a better desire and a better purpose and a better readiness every single night.”

When asked if there is a silver lining to a loss like this coming relatively early in the season, which allows the Wolves to learn from it and move forward. Towns wasn’t taking the bait. This kind of loss was all too familiar to him. He lived these kinds of games in his younger days, when the Wolves were playing for lottery balls by this time in the season. The Wolves are playing for so much more now, and that’s what makes it sting.

There’s no silver lining. No moral victories. It was cool and we were saying that when we were 15-30 and stuff like that,” Towns said. “That’s the time you want to try to pull out the old moral victories. But we’re number one in the West, one of the best teams in the NBA. There ain’t no time for moral victories, silver linings, great nights.

“It’s just not a finish we wanted.”

(Photo of Karl-Anthony Towns: Jordan Johnson / NBAE via Getty Images)

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