Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 4/26/12
MINNEAPOLIS Thursday night, the book closed on the Minnesota Timberwolves' 2011-12 season. The statistics are final, the record set. There's no longer a chance at redemption, no further opportunity for failure. But the resolution isn't there. It's over, but there are things left hanging, the questions of what could have happened, even what should have. It's a lack of finality that's been absent in Minnesota in recent seasons. Seventeen wins, 15, even 24 those records, those seasons without a hope of a playoff berth don't afford questions like the ones that lurk in the back of this year's Timberwolves' minds. It might not seem like 26 wins, even in a lockout season, are enough to lament a lost hope, but for the Timberwolves, they were.That says something about how little it takes to get into the NBA playoffs more than half the league makes it but even more about how fast the Timberwolves fell and how far. On March 7, they were 21-19. Kevin Love was averaging 25.5 points, fourth-best in the league, and 13.8 rebounds, good for second-best. Ricky Rubio was coming into his own, leading all rookies in assists with 326 (averaging 8.2), almost double the number of the next-best rookie at the time, Kyrie Irving. With a win over Portland that night, the team claimed the Western Conference's eighth playoff spot, and though there were 26 games remaining before the postseason, players could taste it.After the win, Derrick Williams said that it felt like the team hadn't lost in "so long." Its last loss had come just six days earlier, but too-early playoff dreams mixed with a dose of immaturity can skew things like time and perspective.That was 50 days ago, and in 50 days, the team saw this: five wins. Twenty-one losses. An ACL tear. Bone spurs. A thigh contusion. A sprained ankle. A busted lip. A concussion. A blown 20-point lead. Accusations of players not caring. A blown 21-point lead less than three weeks later to the same team. The list could keep going, but that would be unnecessary. As depressing as that litany of pain and failure looks on paper, it was worse in the moment. In the moment it was Rubio's arm extending up from the court, as if to say, "I surrender." It was the dazed look on Love's face in Denver, the wincing pain on Luke Ridnour's as he clutched his ankle in Sacramento. It was the sharp clattering sound of a metal sign falling, knocked over by a player after Sunday's loss to Golden State. It was the resignation in coach Rick Adelman's voice, the jokes that became fewer as time went on, the laugh ever more strained."It was just the way we kind of gave in to the situation," he said.No coach likes to admit that."I enjoyed the first 45 games, and before I knew it I wasn't enjoying it," Adelman said. "It really was hard. I think these last three weeks have been very, very difficult."Or that.These are pains that go deeper than face value. They hurt not only because of what had just happened, but also because of what the team lost with every injury and letdown, with every bout of immaturity and streak of bad luck. It hurt when J.J. Barea said things "can't get much worse" after an April 11 loss to the Clippers, both because of how good things had been and because everyone knew that the season could indeed continue to fall apart.That's why it's hard to say what 2011-12 means, at least right now. There are some conclusions to be drawn: Love became great, Rubio lived up to the hype, Nikola Pekovic was the most pleasant of surprises, Williams needs to improve and Adelman was the team's best hire in years. But those are all individual evaluations, just a few of many that the coaching staff will conduct in the next week. Those are easy, their most subjective components being things like getting along with teammates and handling pressure. It's the less formal evaluations, by everyone from fans to ownership, of what this season means and where it stands in franchise history that will remain uncertain for a matter of months or even years.This season could have been the start of something. There was always that inkling as the season began, and it was confirmed as the team exceeded expectations Adelman admitted as much through 40 games. The team learned how to win, felt for the first time what a consistently happy locker room could be. It convinced itself that what it was doing was more than a fluke, and it might not have been.But now there's no way to know. With the right moves and proper recoveries, the Timberwolves could be a playoff team in six months, which Adelman admitted Thursday was his hope. That would validate this season and bring the hazy memories of February and March success into a clearer light. But if claims that the team's midseason success this year was real amount to nothing, if the Timberwolves remain the losing franchise they've been for the good part of a decade, then this season is meaningless, forgotten.So much depends on the right negotiations, on conversations and handshakes. That's almost as scary as the other unknowns, the tendons that must heal just right and the bones that must ease back into proper place. None of it is certain, but so much depends on it.The players, for their part, have the right mentality. Love knows that the team must capitalize on the pressure this season has created, the demands the team can now realistically put on itself to win. He's not the only one who feels that way. Pekovic can see the differences between this season and last, and he hopes they can persist."We are looking forward," Pekovic said. "Next year, we should only be better."There was a certain confidence in his statement, but it's impossible to ignore that one word: should. We should only get better it's true. But it's easy to argue that none of what happened from mid-March until season's end should have happened, either. For that matter, one can go back further and argue that the Timberwolves never should have even been contenders. Should. It's the word that surrounded the team's doomed fate this season, but now it's the lynchpin of its future, the future that will ultimately define this season.Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.
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