In the last few days, the slumping Boston Celtics have bowed out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Another loss could drop them to third place for the first time since the first week of November.
Trying to avoid their first three-game losing streak in nearly a year, the Celtics hope to continue their dominance over a Minnesota Timberwolves team that could have Kevin Love(notes) back Sunday night at the Target Center.
Boston (50-21) was tied with Chicago atop the East on Monday but has since lost back-to-back home games to fall behind the Bulls. The Celtics are now just one-half game ahead of third-place Miami, and they would fall from the No. 2 spot Sunday if they lose and the Heat beat Houston. Boston hasn’t been in third place since it was 3-1 on Nov. 2.
The Celtics would seemingly have a good chance of remaining in second, having won eight straight over Minnesota (17-56) since a 109-107 loss Feb. 11, 2007 - back when Kevin Garnett(notes) was still on the Timberwolves - but they’ve had many close calls.
Four of the last seven meetings have been decided by three points or less, and the Celtics needed to score 19 of the game’s final 27 points to beat Minnesota at home 96-93 on Jan. 3.
Love had 24 rebounds in that game but was held to 12 points on 3-of-11 shooting. Minnesota is 1-18 when Love scores 15 or less, including losses the last two games as he sat out with a strained groin, but the league’s rebounding leader could return Sunday.
“That’s up to our medical staff to determine,” coach Kurt Rambis said. “That’s up to him to determine, too.”
His return might make it harder on the Celtics to avoid yet another defeat to an inferior opponent. They are coming off Friday’s 83-81 loss to a sub-.500 Charlotte team which had lost 10 of 12.
Boston also has lost to Memphis, Houston, New Jersey, Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Clippers in the last 2 1/2 weeks.
“The way we’re playing shocks me. Our attitude shocks me,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I just think we’ve become very, very selfish, not just as far as trying to get our own (shots), but everything is about how we’re playing individually, instead of how the team is playing.”
Friday’s loss was especially discouraging, as the Celtics allowed the Bobcats to rally from 13 points down in the fourth quarter. Boston, which hasn’t lost three in a row since March 28-April 2, 2010, was outscored 30-15 in the final period and let Charlotte hit 10 of 15 shots.
“Our defense really broke down in the fourth quarter,” Paul Pierce(notes) said. “Regardless of however our offense is going - it’s been struggling as of late - we still should be able to put together a defensive run.”
The offense hasn’t been helping matters, averaging 86.0 points while failing to reach the century mark in the last nine games. The Celtics haven’t gone 10 in a row without cracking triple digits since an 11-game stretch from Jan. 20-Feb. 6, 2006.
Boston theoretically should have better luck offensively against a Minnesota team allowing a league-worst 107.1 points per game, but it didn’t have much success in the first meeting.
The Timberwolves, surrendering an average of 111.2 points during a six-game skid, are coming off a 111-103 loss to Oklahoma City on Friday.