Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 4/19/12
MINNEAPOLIS In place of congratulations, there's the rustle of ice baths. Listen for the clean smack of a high-five, and there's nothing more than the whoosh of a quick deodorant spray, the thud-thud-thud of shoes being jammed onto feet just a bit too quickly. And all too soon, there's silence. It's hard to believe that not even two months ago, the Timberwolves' locker room was a place of energy and expectations. No trace of the singing and inside jokes remains, as if to remember them, to think about all that they signified, would make it worse. And really, it might. On March 7, the Timberwolves were 21-19, with the eighth-best record in the Western Conference. They were contenders, and they'd figured out how to win. There was no doubt they were a team on the upswing, that with every passing game chemistry would build and a winning edge would sharpen. And then, suddenly, it all was no more. That same edge turned around to stab the team, one injury starting a landslide of more and more, deflating playoff hopes almost as quickly as they'd become a reality. The Timberwolves went from promising and young to Minnesota's biggest tease, and with only a brief glimpse of success, it's hard not to see the team as falling back into its old ways. Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman seemed to underestimate all that he inherited, the six straight losing seasons and the utter lack of energy that history can create. But his oversight was an honest one; this season began with a runaway hope the team somehow kept up with. Why worry about the specter of the past when it seemed that with the development of a star and import of a Spanish sensation it was finally history? Why? Because this is a game, and as in any game, it's impossible to predict what's coming next. And so instead of being predictably disappointed, Adelman is taken aback. He's shocked, watching something he worked so hard to build unravel so quickly. But worst of all, he knows he was wrong. He thought the Timberwolves had turned a corner, he said, and as he stares up at the season from the 25-38 hole his team has dug, there's no way that was true. "As a coach, I took the first 40-something games and saw the progress we'd made, and now I'm seeing it go the other direction quickly," Adelman said. Still, he's trying his hardest to find the humor is his depleted lineup, the positives in his sidelined stars. But with no players stepping up to fill roles, the laughs are more nervous and further apart, the sighs a little deeper. Those sarcastic one-liners the coach cultivated all season are becoming fewer and fewer with each accumulating loss. The only quips in the Timberwolves' locker room now are blunt, humorless. They're J.J. Barea's dramatic "It can't get any worse," and Anthony Tolliver's weak "We're playing for pride." Those comments may not inspire much in the hearts of teammates and fans, but at least Barea and Tolliver are talking. At least they're letting people know how much they're thinking about this 11-game skid, about how much it pains them. Because all too often in April, things have devolved into a silence that screams a little too loud. Silence can speak of depression, of anger and disappointment. But a silence this long, one that's yet to generate a single win, is worrisome. It smacks of resignation and giving up, of reverting back to last season, but when players do speak, they're spouting a very different message. "It's different," Tolliver said. "Last year, we gave up way early, and I didn't even think that we had a chance to win down the stretch because nobody really cared. This year, guys in this locker room still care. We still want to win, and we want to go out there and play hard and show that we can still win." That's the most refreshing thing anyone on that team has said in weeks, and there's no surprise that it came from the ever-eloquent Tolliver. It's the kind of message this team should be sending, yet it was barely more than a whispered suggestion before Tolliver talked on Tuesday. Perhaps that's because the Timberwolves' de facto spokesperson, Kevin Love, has been absent from the locker room for a week, but that shouldn't be an excuse. These are grown men who for nearly three months took complete control of their fate. They learned to win. They learned to play as a team. And now, somehow, they've lost the ability to assure people that they haven't forgotten how to do all of those things. When the Timberwolves were good, things were good. Players jelled and coaches laughed and the Target Center buzzed with more energy than it had in years. More than anything, this team was noisy, on the court and off it. So despite it all, despite the losses and the injuries and the unmet expectations, these players need to make some noise. There's no need for cheering, no place for celebrating. But the Timberwolves need to speak up and show they're still fighting. Because in just six months, they get another shot, and these players have proven that they can win. Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.
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