Briefly lost in the joy of an excitable and improving Phoenix Suns squad winning a nail-biter against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night was the woe of the Wolves on their home floor. Minnesota is now 0-10 in games decided by four points or less, a mark they’re well aware of, a mark each of its players wants a hand at helping right.
Sometimes, when players don’t get what they want, they sulk. Or vent. Jose Juan Barea and Dante Cunningham wanted extra playing time in the loss on Wednesday, they didn’t get what they wanted, and so they removed themselves from late game team huddles and quickly exited the locker room after the contest. Wolves superstar Kevin Love didn’t get what he wanted – a win with all hands on deck – so he took to the press to call out his teammates after yet another frustrating loss.
''We can't have two guys sitting at the end of the bench that play good minutes just sitting there and not getting up during timeouts,'' Love said, referring to the poor body language exhibited by veterans J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham in the fourth quarter. ''We all need to be in this together. That kind of (ticks) me off. We're supposed to be a team.''
''It's two guys that we expect more from them,'' Love said. ''I think they expect more from themselves. I'm not trying to single anybody out and I don't want to make it bigger than it is, but it's just a team that we needed to beat tonight and we needed everybody in there, even guys that didn't play any minutes. We need to have a team and a bench that's really in it together.''
Love went on to say that if his team sticks together and shows consistent effort that Minnesota will “be OK,” but something is genuinely wrong here. And it’s not just limited to Barea and Cunningham moping about.
Barea appeared to sulk after being removed at the eight minute mark of the fourth quarter in the loss, but he’s usually subbed out for starting guard Ricky Rubio around this time anyway. Barea missed his only shot and turned the ball over once to zero assists in his short stint, but he did contribute eight points and two assists in extended first half action. His minutes, like Cunningham’s, have dipped this season along with his per-minute production, but both can be potentially blamed on Rubio missing part of 2012-13 after an ACL tear, and the natural decline that most waterbug 29-year old point guards tend to make as they age.
The underlying uneasiness here, shared by some Minnesota fans, visiting broadcast teams, message board denizens and national media, is that Kevin Love produces hollow stats and little else. That his MVP-worthy line of over 26 points, 13 rebounds, four assists per game (with very few turnovers and fouls) somehow falls short of that intangible “pushing Minnesota over the top” execution.
Which is ridiculous, of course. Love is a knockout of a player, and he pushes Minnesota to the brink just about every time he suits up. Minnesota has issues shooting the ball overall, and they have issues protecting the rim, but by and large this is a very good team because of Love – ranked sixth in per-possession offense and 10th in the same mark on defense.
Those sorts of rankings tend to produce winning teams, but after Wednesday’s failure the Wolves have been knocked to a game below .500 at 17-18, notoriously losing their tenth game decided by four points or less. These losses include a notorious non-call from referee Ed Malloy on Kevin Love that the NBA had to apologize for, but they also include a close loss to Oklahoma City at home just five nights later. Love was fouled shooting a three-pointer late in that game with Minnesota down two, but he missed his first two free throws, intentionally had to miss the third, and the Thunder prevailed. It’s cruel to joke that Malloy may have done Love a favor in not sending him to the line just a few nights before.
Teams both great and middling and terrible tend to split close games. Decades of NBA history has proven this, so it’s not an awful thing for the Wolves to have both playoff aspirations and quite a few close losses. To dump all 10 chances at a close win in 35 overall games, though, is quite the NBA oddity. I’ve seen games this season that showcased Minnesota executing well down the stretch, right down to the part where they miss their good look from the field. I’ve also seen games this season where several Wolves – Love, Rubio, Kevin Martin – force poor looks down the stretch. The only real consistency is the big “L” in the end.
Worse – the longer it drags on, the tighter the collar gets. Minnesota was downright awful in ending Wednesday’s loss on the wrong end of a 9-1 run, and that “here we go again” thought process is bound to creep in, even if the Wolves start splitting these close fourth quarters. As all teams should hope to do.
While splitting 10 close games that you have a legitimate chance of winning down the stretch may seem like a modest improvement and/or goal, it would be the difference between the current 17-18 record and a 22-13 record for the Wolves, a mark that would have them in a three-way tie for the fifth spot in the West, a ranking that seems to suit them.
“Seems to” on paper, at least. Whether it’s deserved or not, the Minnesota Timberwolves still also seem to give off the scent of a team that can’t quite hack it at a playoff-level yet, which is a very strange thing to say about a good basketball team fielding with one of the league’s best players while working in a league that sends 16 of its 30 teams to the playoffs every year.
Predicting doom and gloom for these Wolves – another playoff miss, Kevin Love forcing a trade or leaving as a free agent in 2015, continued bickering – is pointless. What is worth wondering about, at that nebulous intangible level, is if the Minnesota Timberwolves are feeling the pressure more than most to end this ohfer 10 streak. Because the team is good, and not great, they’re going to be in a ton of these close games, and don’t think that opponents aren’t aware of this 0-10 record on the other side of the ball.
The pressure is on. And it’s extending far beyond the term of the dwindling minutes in the fourth quarter of a close game.
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