MINNEAPOLIS They conceded afterward that they should have seen it coming.
But because they did not, or at least didn't do enough to prevent it, Minnesota's 110-103 win over the Jazz on Sunday may be one that they watch over and over in their nightmares.
"This is a game we thought we had to have," starting power forward Carlos Boozer said, "and we let it slip away."
"This was the game," backup small forward Matt Harpring added, "that's one of those that I think we will look back on, just like a few other ones this year that we said we should have had."
Like, among others, the November loss at New York and the December one at Miami, and the one this is what really stings here late last month to these very same Timberwolves.
It was then, after all, that Minnesota took control in the fourth quarter just like the T-Wolves did Sunday, when they used an 11-2 run that included seven points from Rashard McCants to break open a 78-78 tie.
McCants' 18-foot jumper with 8:33 remaining gave Minnesota an 89-80 lead, and the Jazz admittedly outhustled by the Timberwolves never got closer than within three the rest of the way.
"There were a lot of plays where they were on the floor, and we were just reaching for the ball," point guard Deron Williams said after an outing in which the Jazz not only yielded 56 points in the paint but also were outscored on both second-chance and fastbreak points. "It can't happen. It seemed like they wanted the game more than us."
Why is anyone's best guess.
The 19-win T-Wolves are NBA Draft lottery-bound, relegated Sunday to Page 16 news in a 22-page Minneapolis Star Tribune sports section, whereas the 48-26 Jazz had so much more at stake.
Forget for a moment that Utah started the day just two games out of first place in the NBA's Western Conference. And never mind that the Jazz, who fell to 16-22 on the road, still are on the short end of securing homecourt advantage for the first round of postseason play.
Consider, instead, this: With just eight games to go in the regular season, including tonight's at home against above-.500 Washington, coach Jerry Sloan's club still hasn't even clinched a playoff berth.
"It's a game," said Williams, who had a 15-point, 13-assist double-double. "I thought we could have come out better, considering the circumstances, and what we're fighting for right now."
Yet there were the Jazz absent injured Andrei Kirilenko and ill Mehmet Okur committing 18 turnovers overall and stumbling and bumbling through a fourth quarter in which they were outscored 34-29.
"It's a great lesson for people to see just what teams can do when they stay within what they're trying to do," said Sloan, whose Jazz will see the Timberwolves again on Wednesday night in Utah. "They kept executing. They kept running their plays. They kept running them hard. They kept setting screens. And this is what we always thought was important for us.
"But we came out so lethargic that we never did get into a rhythm where we really did that," he added. "We had one or two plays where we set great screens, and we got layups off of 'em. But those are things you can't do just once in a while to try to win the game. You have to do it all the time, to set a stage for how you want to play."
Instead the Jazz, using Sloan's very own word, played soft.
"They had us pushed out on the floor. Way out, and we were really soft trying to get the ball in," he said. "And they knew it, and they just hammered us."
Utah did get to within three four times in the final quarter, the last time when Paul Millsap used a pass from 25-point game-high scorer Boozer for a layup that made it 101-98.
But Minnesota answered each time, and the final occasion was a dagger that had to sting: With less than a minute to go, after McCants had saved the ball from going from out of bounds, ex-Jazz guard Kirk Snyder drove the baseline for a layup and was fouled by Harpring.
Snyder slid past Boozer, around Harpring and under Millsap for his basket, then hit the free throw that followed.
"I thought he was gonna shoot the jump shot, so I closed out to take away the shot, and he drove," said Boozer, who also had 10 rebounds to pull into a tie for second place with Minnesota's Al Jefferson behind Orlando's Dwight Howard among league leaders in double-doubles. "It was a good play by him."
It was, and it proved especially painful on an afternoon of mostly mediocre play for the Jazz.
"It hurts a lot," Williams said."But there's nothing," Harpring added, "we can do about it now."
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