BROOKLYN, N.Y. It took a haircut and some concussion tests, a veteran coach and a magical momentum shift, and with that strange combination of luck, brains and skill, the Timberwolves coopted Brooklyn's fairy tale.
For three quarters on Monday, Brooklyn looked as if its hot streak would continue. There was an arena and then a storm, then finally a win, and then the strongest start on Monday that the Nets could have asked for. They seemed poised to go 2-0 in their shiny new home, to head to Miami on the wings of success.
And then the Timberwolves swooped into town, this ragtag bunch without its stars, from Minnesota, of all places. Minnesota is not supposed to spoil a New York miracle, and four three quarters, it couldn't. For three quarters, the Nets shots fell and the Timberwolves' simply did not, and everything seemed right in the Barclays Center bubble.
In the third quarter, the Timberwolves were down by 22 points, but something shifted. With the second unit in, a freshly shorn Alexey Shved began controlling the floor. J.J. Barea to Nikola Pekovic became a surefire score, and Chase Budinger's 3-pointers started falling. Dante Cunningham was everywhere, and the Timberwolves were suddenly a threat.
At 96-94, they claimed their lead, and from there, it was history. They made history. It was the first opposing win at the Barclays Center, 107-96, the Timberwolves' biggest comeback in nearly 15 years. It was the best victory of the Adelman era, for everything it was and everyone it was missing. And for a team without Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio and with the rest of the world telling it that it can only tread water for now, this was the improbable, unimaginable, crazy comeback it needed.
"Coach said it, take it easy, one point at a time, and we did a good job at chiseling and chiseling away," Barea said. "I knew when the game got close, it was going to get tighter for them on offense, and it got a lot harder for them on offense."
So what was the key? No one seemed to know. Chief among the reasons, according to this giddy, proud bunch, was Shved's haircut ("You think because of that we win?" Pekovic asked. "Me and AK, we make him to cut his hair. Now he look like a man.") or maybe even those doctors who deemed Barea's brain in sound enough shape for him to take the court. There was no star, no one player to point at and praise. This team without its biggest names has created some kind of equanimous basketball universe, where bench players and starters are equal and no man plays only for himself.
Therein lies the Timberwolves version of the fairy tale, where a gaggle of Cinderellas led by the mastermind Rick Adelman were good enough for this win.
"I think we knew how good our bench was," Budinger said. "I've been saying since day one how deep our team is. Coach is really good at changing lineups up and putting in guys he thinks have the best chance at winning. He's a mastermind like that, and that's what happened tonight."
Wins like these have a funny effect. They turn bashful Russian 23-year-olds into men and undrafted journeymen into factors. They reverse the suspicions that Andrei Kirilenko is past his prime; he finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and four blocked shots, after all. They transform Nikola Pekovic from a serious giant into something approaching jolly, with 21 points of his own. He could have played another quarter, he said; indeed, his whole team could have. Games like this will make you forget about fatigue and aches and even time.
No one loves this game more than Pekovic. When the Timberwolves lose, he is distraught, not only for himself, but for everyone else. He seems to take as much pleasure in his teammates' successes as he does in his own, and on Monday, Pekovic was on top of the world.
"It feels great," he said. "We just hustled, played hard. Even if it's hard, I was enjoying it. When you see all your teammates play hard in every possession, that makes you feel great. That pushes you more and more."
"It's great when you see all these players playing really hard and tough. I was just enjoying playing there, doing all the stuff."
A fourth quarter like Monday's erases the first three, at least for a time. And it should. But the glow will wear off, and the frustrations of the early parts of the game will reemerge. But to know that they can do it, that they can put a team like the Nets in the position they found themselves too many times last year that is the best kind of takeaway.
This team has been telling itself for weeks that it can be a contender, that it can be better than everyone expected. That mantra has taken some blows, yes, but it remains not only intact, but bolstered by this game.
"We just looked like a great team," Pekovic said. "What we want to be."
What, perhaps more and more, they suspect they can be.Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.