MINNEAPOLIS Warriors coach Mark Jackson is just two games away from the end of his first season as a head coach, and before Sunday's 93-88 Golden State victory, he said that nothing has surprised him so far this year.
Two hours later, that feeling might have changed. Two hours later, his 23-41 team had staged yet another comeback victory over the Timberwolves, bigger even than its 20-point resurgence on April 4.
It's the kind of game that shouldn't happen twice, yet somehow did. On Sunday, the Warriors outscored the Timberwolves 54-33 in the second half, better even than the 58-43 second-half drubbing 18 days before. Last time, it was a David Lee layup in the third quarter that tipped the scales in the Warriors' favor, this time a Charles Jenkins jumper with 5:43 left in the game. But other than that, it was the worst kind of dj vu, a resurgent complacency and listlessness that not even the worst of losses can seem to cure.
"I think the team thinks just because you get a lead, you think that everything is just going to go fine," Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. "You have to keep working at it."
It was eerily similar, all of it the missed baskets, the poor shots, the flagging defense until the team stepped off the court. But there's no way the aftermath can be the same the second time around. One blown 20-point lead can be an off night, a bad performance that's still considered an outlier. Another blown lead, worse by one point, is statistically significant.
On Sunday night, the notion of outliers became irrelevant, and with it a rift began to form. There was the same silence, the same haste to get as far away from the game and the Target Center as possible, as fast as possible. But this time, the blame game began, and it wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
Veteran point guard J.J. Barea was perhaps the only player eager to talk after the game, ready to share his opinions. And though his teammates might not have agreed with him, Barea's message didn't seem too off base.
"We got problems here," Barea said. "We've got a lot of guys that don't care. When on a basketball team you've got a lot of players that don't care, it's tough to win games. What's going to happen, we're just going to keep getting (losses) until we get players here that care, care about winning care about the team, care about the fans."
At face value, it seems harsh. But harsh has a place in a locker room after a blown 21-point lead, and that's what Barea wants his teammates to know. Just a year removed from a championship in 2011 with Dallas, Barea knows what it feels like to play on a winning team, knows the pain that a tough loss should bring. He's not seeing that reaction among his teammates, and that's the problem. Maybe it's not so much that they don't care about winning and losing, but rather that they're not reacting appropriately.
Nights like Sunday, when fans yell things like, "Wake up," in the game's final minutes, are supposed to hurt. Players are supposed to show it.
"After a game like this, you've got to have problems," Barea said. "You've got to argue with your teammates, but nobody really cares. We've got to change that."
And no matter how much teammates like Anthony Tolliver and Nikola Pekovic might disagree with Barea, there's no denying that the fight, the yelling and arguing that the point guard alluded to, were absent from the Timberwolves' locker room on Sunday night.
Barea didn't name names or point fingers at any particular players, but he wanted his message to be heard. He knew it would be repeated around the locker room; this isn't some secret vendetta he's carrying. But until players are called out, Michael Beasley said, Barea's accusations don't matter. Until those players are identified, this remains a collective loss.
In many ways, though, the notion of collective, of team, breaks down on nights like Sunday, and rightfully so. That might seem wrong after a season in which Adelman stressed team, team, team but individual accountability must have its uncomfortable place after such disastrous losses. Players have to look in the mirror, Tolliver said, to take credit for their mistakes just as they claim their personal victories.
"The hardest thing to do is to say, You know what, my fault. It's on me,'" Tolliver said. "It's really easy to say, You should have done that.'"
There were a lot of things the Timberwolves should have done on Sunday, both individually and as a team. But as the clock ticks toward the season's final game on Thursday, that notion of team is coming ever closer to becoming secondary. Evaluations are imminent, evaluations that focus on individuals more than anything, and Barea said that Sunday's game made him think that big changes need to be made in the offseason. It's hard to disagree.
There's no way to know who's right, to say for sure that Barea's claims are true. His teammates have heard them, though, most likely not for the first time, and they're the only ones who can combat them. Words of disagreement ring hollow, defensive reactions to the suspicion that he might be talking about them, and the only way anyone can prove the point guard wrong is on the court.
That hasn't happened yet, and with only one game left in the season, the Timberwolves are nearing a point when those empty words will be their only remaining defenses.
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