MINNEAPOLIS -- Both Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders and Pacers coach Nate McMillan said they were going to handle the home-and-home series their teams face Wednesday and Friday like a playoff series.
Wednesday hardly resembled a playoff game at Target Center, given the number of empty seats and the fact that both teams' best players -- Karl-Anthony Towns and Victor Oladipo -- were out.
But the Wolves need to overcome Towns' absence, which extended to 15 games, in order to stay afloat in a crowded race for a gettable No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. They couldn't do that as they fell, 104-99, to Indiana for their third consecutive loss.
The Pacers pulled away in the fourth quarter of a game in which neither team had a lead reach double digits. Domantas Sabonis scored 25 of his 29 points in the first half while Malcolm Brogdon helped carry Indiana to the finish line with 21 points.
Andrew Wiggins struggled again from the field, scoring just 10 points on 4-of-13 shooting while Jarrett Culver led the team with 17 and Keita Bates-Diop added 15 off the bench. Gorgui Dieng had 15 points and 11 rebounds.
The Pacers' largest leads of the night came in the fourth quarter as Brogdon played the role of closer in scoring 10 points, finding room to operate inside and outside.
The Wolves came out with more burst than they had Monday against Oklahoma City, grabbing a six-point lead after the first quarter. It helped that their shots were falling early. Robert Covington (14 points) hoisted five 3s in the first, hitting three of them. Noah Vonleh drilled a 3 in the final minute to bump up their lead headed into quarter two. It was a productive set for Vonleh and Dieng, as the Wolves centers combined for 12 points in the opening 12 minutes. Shabazz Napier added an efficient four assists in six minutes to help make up for a slow start from Wiggins (0 for 3).
The Wolves were able to hold the lead despite an onslaught from Sabonis, who was having his way with whoever was at center for the Wolves. Sabonis finished with 25 in the first half. He took no mercy on Naz Reid, as the Wolves rookie got a harsh lesson in what it was like defending a post player as skilled in the pick and roll as Sabonis. Nearly every possession Reid guarded Sabonis in the quarter, Sabonis scored. The Wolves almost caught a break when Sabonis was whistled for an offensive foul at the 7:51 mark, but McMillan challenged the call and was successful. Indiana struggled to score outside of Sabonis -- his teammates shot just 11 of 31 in the first half -- and the Wolves kept their lead at a few possessions throughout the second. They led 59-54 at the half after shooting 57%.
The Pacers, however, would chip away at the lead in the third quarter until they finally got the lead for the first time since 11-10. The Wolves cooled off considerably in the third after their hot first half, shooting just 5 of 25. Covington played multiple possessions at one point during the quarter without one of his shoes, and didn't let up defensively. When he got his shoe back in between possessions, and quickly put it back on about halfway -- and then proceeded to block a shot. Indiana grabbed the initial momentum early in the fourth quarter with a 10-2 spurt that allowed the Pacers to equal their biggest lead of the night, five, at 90-85 and force a timeout from Ryan Saunders with 7:22 to play.
Neither team wanted make a move on the other in the minutes following that timeout, with the teams scoring just four points combined over the next 2:51. Thanks to Brogdon, the Pacers increased their lead to eight and kept the Wolves from getting within one possession the rest of the way.
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