OKLAHOMA CITY — A comrade fallen, the Thunder played the final quarter and a half with renewed purpose.
Also, the same issues that had them struggling to pull away the moment Nerlens Noel went down hard — the OKC reserve center left on a stretcher after taking an Andrew Wiggins elbow to the face and the hardwood floor to his head with 5:16 remaining in the third quarter — cost them again.
After winning three straight games, Oklahoma City has lost its last two, both at home, via the same failings.
Minnesota’s 119-117 Tuesday night victory counted as 32-year-old Ryan Saunders’ first game and win as an NBA head coach, and it came after two 3-point misses from Russell Westbrook and one impossible desperate prayer of a missed follow from Paul George.
“We got some looks,” Westbrook said. “Missed them.”
Had his last 3 fallen, giving OKC an unlikely victory, irony would have been the rule of the day, because the Thunder would have won only because Steven Adams grabbed an offensive rebound on a night they allowed the Timberwolves to grab 15.
Instead, the game’s most important possession was not Minnesota’s last one, nor its penultimate one, but the one before that, when offensive rebounds from both Karl Anthony Towns and Wiggins, led to two more Wiggins free throws, rather than the Thunder having the ball and the lead deep into the final minute.
Instead, Wiggins hit those free throws, Paul George missed a 3-pointer on the other end Josh Okogie hit a 3 for Minnesota, making it 119-115.
Westbrook then hit two free throws and Dennis Schroder forced a travel from Tyus Jones, giving the Thunder their last failed possession.
A few numbers were eerily similar to the embarrassing loss Washington handed OKC two nights earlier.
The Thunder lead the league in turnover differential, but were on the wrong end of the stat again, getting 10 from Minnesota, while coughing it up themselves 16 times.
The Thunder lead the league in offensive rebounding, too. Yet, against Minnesota, they grabbed 10, but allowed 15.
Mostly, OKC coach Billy Donovan concentrated on the positive.
“I thought we did a lot of good things offensively tonight,” he said. “I thought we moved the ball. I thought we generated some really good looks.”
That, they did.
OKC shot 50.6 percent (43 of 85), 40 percent from 3-point land (12 of 30) and better than normal from the free-throw line, making 73.1 percent (19 of 26).
But Minnesota’s offensive rebounding and low turnover count mitigated its its 42 percent (38 of 90) shooting.
That, and the Timberwolves (20-21) made a killing at the free-throw line, earning 40 attempts and making it 32.
“We put them to the free-throw line too many times and we got hurt on the offensive glass,” Donovan said.
Wiggins finished with 40 points, merging 11 of 24 shooting and 16 of 18 free-throw shooting. Towns finished with 20.
George led the Thunder (25-15) with 27 points, yet struggled from the field a second straight game, making 9 of 24.
Westbrook finished with 25 on 11 of 22 shooting and dished 16 assists, yet turned the ball over seven times, too.
Adams was terrific, finishing with 20 points on 8 of 9 shooting and 12 rebounds.
Noel’s condition is unknown.
Donovan said he’d been taken to OU Medical Center for observation.
The Thunder’s next two games are against the same team. They’re at San Antonio Thursday and back home against San Antonio Saturday.
The Spurs, who play the Grizzlies tonight, will be sitting on at least 24 wins, significantly more than both Washington and Minnesota, both of which came into Chesapeake Energy Arena and won.