MINNEAPOLIS This project is about more than basketball. It's about altering perspectives, about putting together something that warrants a shift in mindset.
On the morning of March 5, the Timberwolves were 19-19, and in the wake of the team's 17-65 season last year, that seemed great. Better than great, even, phenomenal. It wasn't phenomenal, though. That's the catch. It was average, barely better than mediocre, but after years mired in losing, it's easy to think that .500 is a lot more than it really is.
Kevin Love is in his fourth year in the NBA, his fourth with the Timberwolves. He's fiercely competitive, a dogged worker and one of the best players in the league. He expects the most out of himself. Yet on that morning before his team's 38th game, its record a solid .500, Love slipped.
"Things are great," Love said. "We're at .500."
Great, really? Great? It took Love just a split second, a pause no longer than a sharp breath, to realize what he'd said.
"I wouldn't say things are great," he said, correcting himself. "But we're getting there."
And they were. Love didn't know it, but the team was in the midst of a three-game winning streak that would leave the Timberwolves in the Western Conference's eighth playoff spot on March 7. Postseason hopes were becoming tangible, the locker room boisterous and crowded and teeming with expectations.
And then a push, just a small one, an angle of a twist that was just wrong enough. It was a fall that looked like nothing until that hand waved up at teammates and coaches. It was Ricky Rubio, lying powerless on the court with a season-ending ACL injury. It was time for a new set of expectations, a radical change in the Timberwolves' outlook and morale.
Now, just more than a week after the injury, the Timberwolves have stalled. It's not a surprise, really, and things aren't over yet, but this team on a three-game losing skid is a far cry from the near-giddy bunch that relaxed in the Timberwolves' locker room two weeks ago, talking about how it seemed like it had been forever since they'd last lost.
"There's no reason we're any different that anybody else that are in those spots (in the conference standings)," Timberwolves' coach Rick Adelman said on March 7. "We can win games, and we can stay right there."
The Timberwolves had shaken the reputation of being the NBA's worst, proven that their poor records in recent seasons had no bearing on what they could do in 2011-12. They were finally earning respect, and Adelman wanted to make sure his players knew that they deserved it.
That was just days after the team had beaten the Trail Blazers for the first time in 16 games, its first win in Portland since December 2005. It was after the team clinched its season series with the Clippers after having already locked down winning records against Western Conference rivals Dallas and Houston. It was hard to argue that it was anything but a playoff contender.
But since then, since Rubio's injury and the team's subsequent 1-5 record, everything has changed. The Timberwolves have fallen to 11th in the Western Conference standings, as Houston, Phoenix and Utah have slipped ahead of them. They're two games out of the eighth spot, and even that margin seems a long way off after demoralizing losses like Sunday's 115-99 collapse in Sacramento.
The focus now is on damage control. Adelman and his staff need to salvage whatever is left of that winning mentality, and a seven-game, two-week road trip might be the hardest venue in which to do so. There's no home-crowd advantage on the road, no packed, humming Target Center to push the momentum toward the Timberwolves. There's no familiarity, no rest, barely a base upon which confidence can be rebuilt.
Although Rubio's injury was a heavy blow, it's not something that should leave the team confused. In fact, with the trade deadline now past, the Timberwolves know better than they have all season exactly what personnel they'll be working with for the rest of the season. There's no question that other players, especially the bench, will have to take on the burden of Rubio's minutes and production, and the roster is now set for the season's final weeks.
Even before Rubio's injury, it was no secret that bench play would be crucial during this stretch. Playing on the road is more grueling than a homestand, and assistant coach Terry Porter pointed out before the Timberwolves boarded that plane to Phoenix, even before Rubio's fall, that reserve players would be the key to winning in March.
"This schedule is going to be tough," Porter said. "What it's going to take is when we have games, because of our schedule, we're going to have to have our bench guys really step up and contribute. Someone off the bench is going to have to contribute every night."
But since Rubio's injury, the bench has averaged 34.4 points. That's 33.2 percent of the team's total points, respectable but not enough to tip the scales in the Timberwolves' favor. They're in a tough position, though, these players who had been able to get away with streaky contributions and still see their team win all season. There's no real way for them to replace Rubio, and they know it. That must make trying all the more difficult.
"He kind of set the table for us and the way we played," Adelman said of Rubio. "Now we're trying to on-the-fly change a little bit the way we play. When you lose a player of that caliber, it's going to really affect your team. But like I've told the team here, other people have to step up. We have to find a way."
Lakers' coach Mike Brown, whose team wrapped up a season sweep of Minnesota on Friday, said he thinks the Timberwolves still have a decent shot at one of the conference's final playoff spots, despite Rubio's injury. He said that no matter how much people might have questioned the team's tactics in recent years, those carefully crafted moves paid off this season. With two point guards remaining, Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea, the Timberwolves still have a solid talent pool, he said, and with Adelman's expertise, they shouldn't count themselves out.
Sacramento's coach, Keith Smart, had a similar positive if tempered take on the Timberwolves' chances. He said he doesn't think the team's system has changed without the rookie point guard, other than becoming less reliant on the pass.
"Overall, it does have an effect on your team, but this team has shown they can be steady," Smart said. "You obviously miss a great player, a piece of your team. That's always going to hurt. They still have ways to sneak in."
But that steadiness that Smart spoke of has been scant in the post-Rubio days. The team will have to get back to that consistency borne of confidence and winning. And Smart is right; the Timberwolves will have to find a way to sneak into the playoffs. It's no longer something that might happen in a secure fashion. There won't be a clinched spot mid-April, but that's not to say that on the season's final day there still won't be a shot.
"I don't think (the poor road trip) is going to define the rest of the season," Adelman said. "I think it's very important. It's a really important time. We've got to win some games to stay there."
Adelman has said several times this season that the Timberwolves have exceeded his expectations. That doesn't let them off the hook in their recent struggles, but it does offer some measure of hope that they'll be able to continue to do so without actually lowering the bar that they've set so far. Especially in this unpredictable season one in which the Suns defeated the Clippers without the help of Grant Hill or Steve Nash and the Rockets beat the Thunder without Kevin Martin last week the unthinkable and unexpected can always happen.
Right now, though, the Timberwolves need to play with more urgency, Adelman said. They need to forget about individual achievements and think about the team, and they must realize that they have just 20 games left to prove themselves. Most of all, they have to learn to think as if Rubio's injury changes nothing. Two weeks ago, they felt like they could beat anyone, and they need to get back to that mindset, no matter how much of a stretch it might be.
There are three games remaining on this road trip, three possible wins for the team to salvage. It doesn't matter that two are against the Thunder and the Spurs, and it doesn't matter who's injured or healthy or hot. The Timberwolves need to forget about preconceived notions and logic. They need to play like the season ends at the end of this road trip. They're just three games away from returning to the Target Center, three games from a brief reprieve at home. That won't solve anything, but it will slow the building panic.
The Kevin Love who sat on the Minnesota bench at the end of Sunday's game, chewing his lip and clenching his jaw, was a far cry from the team leader who tentatively lauded his team's accomplishments and future two weeks ago. But Love, who's seen the Timberwolves through three losing seasons, was perhaps the most hesitant to sit back, the least likely to let himself enjoy the team's winning. After the team's March 5 victory over the Clippers, he was uncomfortable with how close things have gotten, pointing out that on that night, it was better to be lucky than good.
He was right. Earlier this month, the team had a measure of both luck and talent. That's what it takes to be a winning team, and both have waned in recent games. But it's not the luck that Love and his teammates need to dwell on. It's the talent, which though diminished still remains. If and when the team's confidence in its abilities returns, that luck might just follow.
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