MINNEAPOLIS On a normal day, this was a game they needed to win.
There was a Western Conference opponent on the tail end of a back-to-back, running on fumes after an early season schedule with the destructive force of a hurricane. There were the Timberwolves, desperately clinging to the edge of .500, clinging and hoping to climb. There was a healthy team, or healthy in Minnesota terms, which are admittedly skewed. Taken all together, that meant this one counted. It counted big.
And Wednesday was hardly a normal day. It dawned with memories of Kevin Love's comments, ripping the team, its owner and president of basketball operations. No, they weren't a bad dream, and Wednesday was the hangover. But before that particular brand of nausea, exhaustion and self-loathing could kick in, another distraction. Ricky Rubio would not play, the team announced, not tonight, not yet. All that before 11 a.m., and then it was time for the Timberwolves to face what they'd wrought.
First was Love's act of contrition, which was not quite such, and the ensuing reaction, the kickback. There were reports that Rubio would return for sure on Saturday just seconds after Rick Adelman said that the point guard's status was as yet to be determined. Then backtracking, from owner Glen Taylor, that Saturday is a goal but still in flux.
Ricky, Ricky, Ricky. Kevin, Kevin, Kevin. Past, future, complaints, questions.
Oh, and then they had to go play this game. Then they had to grind out this 108-105 win over Denver with all that in their heads. One ticked-off superstar, another still relegated to the bench, and that's all anyone seemed to want to talk about. Not the other 10, the men who ultimately decided the Timberwolves' fate on Wednesday. Nah, no one cared about them.
But like Love mentioned in his air-clearing Wednesday morning, this is the closest-knit team Minnesota has seen in a long time. This is a team that does things last year's couldn't even have dreamed of, one that has the potential to use Love as an asset rather than a crutch. It needed to do so on this night more than any other this season, his shooting struggles aside. The Timberwolves needed to win a game on something other than Love's play to make a statement of their own, one in discord with Love's diatribe but with which he couldn't help but agree.
The punishment fit the crime. Except, really, when the punishment is a win, it isn't quite a punishment, and Love's crime was maybe just a foible. Regardless, there was a certain poetry to the game, one in which Love went 3-of-17 from the field while the rest of his team shot a solid 50 percent. They picked him up when he needed it, just as he's been doing for years for everyone around him, and a night like this one makes the past fade a little dimmer. It makes the future, the fireworks of Ricky, seem less urgent, too. It makes you realize that maybe you should just relax and enjoy the now.
The Timberwolves haven't been able to do that for a good many years.
"If we can win and I can have a game like that, I'm not going to be mad," Love said. "I was very happy, especially because the first game I came back, I said that's a team we're going to end up beating."
And beat them they did, with a flurry of achievements that spoke louder than any printed quote. There was the free throw shooting, 30-of-37, and the comeback after a lackadaisical quarter and a half. There were the 27 points off turnovers to the 18 they gave up, the 25 assists to 15 turnovers. And then Pekovic going for 22 points, Andrei Kirilenko for 18, J.J. Barea and Luke Ridnour combining for 32, Dante Cunningham with a 5-of-5 mark from the field.
It wasn't perfect, far from it, but as Adelman pointed out: "It's the NBA. You're not just going to shut down people in this league. What you have to do is get enough stops, and keep at it, and keep at it, and be mentally tough enough."
On this night, they were, and you have to laud the mental as much as the physical. You know they've been hearing it from all sides, chatter about Love, impatience over Rubio and the sense that the future is where their fate will be decided.
But at some point, the Timberwolves can't keep pushing their day back, and Wednesday, they proved that they're not. They were a team, a winning team, hammering home that they can win under every weird permutation of circumstances.
"That's what we need," Barea said. "I've been through it back in the day in Dallas, when Dirk goes 1-for-20 and we still win the game, that's what makes a good team."
Dirk Nowitzki never went 1-for-20 in Barea's tenure in Dallas. In fact, he's never once done so in his career. But he did post a 3-of-18 mark once, and a 3-of-16, so not too far off. And so Barea knows how this is done. He knows that he matters off the bench, and his teammates obviously do too, in spite of the prevailing sense that they might not, that they don't have the staying power to grow together (from the ubiquitous story), that this whole team is tied up in a point guard, a power forward, and little else.
So Wednesday, they made their statement. They can win without Love, without Rubio, and now when Love has an off night, too. They'll win when Rubio comes back, and they'll win on those nights when his game isn't quite in tune.
It's hard to call them a blessing, those injuries, but they were (and are) a motivation. They made the Timberwolves true underdogs, and they forced the team to grow an identity apart from Love and Rubio. These are Kevin Love's Timberwolves and Ricky Rubio's Timberwolves, but they're also J.J. Barea's and Luke Ridnour's and Nikola Pekovic's. The list could go on, and Love is as pleased as anyone.
There will be a day soon where he takes ownership, where he begins to play like himself every night. There will be a day when Rubio is dishing assists and bouncing passes through legs like he was born to do, and this thing will be fine-tuned and pretty. But until then, with a little less luster and a lot less fanfare, the Timberwolves have proven that winning can be done under the strangest of circumstances.
They've proven it, and on Wednesday, they screamed it without saying a word.
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