MINNEAPOLIS — Shabazz Muhammad was nowhere to be found after Minnesota’s 114-104 loss to the Clippers on Monday night.
The Timberwolves rookie isn’t wont to stick around long following games, disappearing into the Minneapolis night about as quickly as he exploits open paths to the basket. It’s been a rocky inaugural campaign for the 21-year-old, whose playing time has fluctuated drastically and whose father was sentenced last week to more than three years in prison.
The second half of March, Muhammad’s mostly sat on the bench, silent.
But once Monday’s contest was decided by a third-quarter Los Angeles massacre — or so the 12,172 at the Target Center thought — coach Rick Adelman handed him a microphone and listened to him sing.
"I maybe should’ve started him," Adelman said afterward.
Muhammad and a handful of reserves played the entire final period. The UCLA one-and-done scored seven straight points in the first two minutes and finished the frame — and the game — with 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting, three rebounds and an assist.
Together, he, Chase Budinger, J.J. Barea, Robbie Hummel and a post mix of Gorgui Dieng and Dante Cunningham outscored Los Angeles 38-26 in the fourth and the Clippers’ starters 24-16 during the final 6 minutes and change.
"You would’ve told me we’d score 38 points in the fourth quarter, I’d say ‘Really? We must have won by a lot,’" Adelman said. "But we just got back in the game is all we did."
In a semi-occasional flash of consistency, the league’s sixth-worst scoring bench outscored that of the Clippers 60-18 and Minnesota’s starters 60-44. Led by center Gorgui Dieng — who took over for injured Nikola Pekovic in the first quarter — with 14 points, four Timberwolves reserves scored in double figures.
Kevin Love (20 points, 13 rebounds) and Kevin Martin (12 points) were the only Minnesota starters to do the same.
"We just came out there and played, tried to be aggressive," said Budinger, who had 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting. "I thought everyone did a good job of being aggressive out there and attacking, sharing the ball and just trying to compete."
Muhammad was the catalyst, slashing hard to the rim and posting up for the soft hook shot he’s already perfected in his first year in the league.
It was his most productive contest since dropping 20 on Phoenix on Feb. 25. The past seven games, Muhammad’s averaged 8.6 minutes but shot 55.6 percent when he does get in. Two games ago against the Lakers, he entered late and connected on all four of his field-goal attempts en route to nine points.
Such performances have Adelman admitting he perhaps should’ve played him more down the stretch. But the bench’s sporadic brilliance and ineptitude have kept him second- and third-guessing his rotations all year long.
"It’s been so up and down," Adelman said. "I never know what’s coming."
Neither does Muhammad. While the embattled first-year pro has kept his nose out of trouble since getting kicked out of the league’s rookie program, he’s had to deal with his father’s conviction for mortgage fraud and sentencing to 37 months in prison.
Ron Holmes’ illegal dealings include taking out a loan based on Muhammad’s projected NBA earnings, a violation of NCAA rules.
Only Holmes’ son knows if that’s driving him lately. But he certainly has some displeasure to let loose.
"It was great to see him be so aggressive," Budinger said. "That’s what he can do. You get the ball to him in the post and let him go to work."
If only Muhammad’s more reliable teammates had followed suit.
After taking a 55-54 lead 1:12 into the third period, Minnesota’s starters — plus Dieng, minus Pekovic — yielded a 13-0 run as part of a 31-5 Clippers jaunt helmed by Darren Collision, who scored 16 of his game-high 28 points in the quarter. The Timberwolves bench got back within eight three separate times in the final minute, but no closer.
To make matters worse, Pekovic left a game for the third time this season citing soreness in his left ankle. Bursitis in the area has cost him 19 contests and flamed up again Monday.
"I was talking to (head athletic trainer) Gregg (Farnam), ‘look, I forget how to play without pain,’" said Pekovic, who exited 6 minutes, 53 seconds in.
"I was sore all day. I just give it a shot. I wanted to try, you know? I wanted to help guys, but I just couldn’t. It was not possible. I was like ‘I feel like I can’t even do my moves.’ It’s kind of really frustrating for me."
Pekovic said he may see a specialist after the season and isn’t sure if he’ll be shut down for Minnesota’s final nine games or not.
"It’s not on me to deal about that," Pekovic said. "I just don’t know. It’s just been a tough year for me."
And for the Timberwolves (36-37), whose "tragic number" for being mathematically eliminated from postseason contention is down to two. Even without Jamal Crawford and Blake Griffin, the Clippers improved to 53-22 and sit in third place in the Western Conference standings as the regular season winds down.
Adelman has spoken repeatedly of his desire for Minnesota to avoid mailing it in. The Timberwolves reserves, led by Muhammad, sure didn’t Monday.
"Of course, we (the starting five) have to set the tone and bring it every night," said point guard Ricky Rubio, who made just one field goal and tallied seven assists. "That said, I think the second unit has to be proud today. They did a great job."
Said Love: "They played well, and they deserved to be in the game that whole fourth quarter. It was a good run by them to get us back in it. It was just too bad that the starters made it not as great of an effort, because it was just too little, too late."