MINNEAPOLIS — For three quarters, the Timberwolves demonstrated to a raucous, plethoric Target Center what might’ve been this season.
Then, in the final 12 minutes of yet another squandered whack at respectability, 17,866 spectators were reminded of reality.
All told, Minnesota is a better team than it was last season — three wins better, at the moment — and a heck of a lot more fun to watch.
But when folks look back on the 25th campaign in the franchise’s horror-storied history, they’ll use Sunday afternoon’s 127-120 loss to Phoenix as an illustration of the frustration that’s now solidified as this season’s theme.
In desperate need of wins, particularly against teams with which they’re competing in the Western Conference standings, the Timberwolves (34-34) got off to another one of their torrid starts. Entering the final period, they were in prime position to gain a game on ninth-place Phoenix. A crowd that’s watched blown lead after close loss after game-changing lull this season was the loudest it’s been all season.
By the final seconds, they were headed for the exits, few of them making a sound. Again.
The inner bowels of the Target Center weren’t much louder. Coach Rick Adelman spoke for a whopping 1 minute, 24 seconds.
"The biggest difference? We didn’t score," was as in-depth as Adelman was willing to go with reporters.
Team cornerstones Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio — after two of their best performances — sat silently in front of their lockers, staring at the floor and wondering what went wrong.
That goes for Sunday, when it was outscored 34-17 in the fourth quarter. And for the season, which is all but assured of concluding here Wednesday, April 16, the date of Minnesota’s last regular-season contest.
"That was our playoffs right there, and we lost," Love said with more defeat in his voice than the edge he usually intonates with following losses. "This one hurts a lot more than the others."
The Timberwolves scored a season-high 73 points in the first half. They’d go on to give up a lead that stood at 22 — the largest deficit Minnesota’s blown this year.
It leaves them six games back of the West’s eighth and final playoff spot. Unless they win their final 14 contests, they can count on being the 10th straight group to wear the black and blue and miss the postseason.
"It was a very important game," Rubio said. "We couldn’t finish it, and they made big shots at the end."
There’s some sardonically good news. The Timberwolves’ defeat puts them in great position to finish 10th in the West behind either the Suns or Grizzlies, whom they play on the road Monday.
A ninth-place finish would likely take away their top-13 protected pick in this summer’s draft.
But the fact that’s a positive in play offers quintessential indication of what a disappointment 2013-14’s been for a squad whose ceiling was highly regarded as the playoffs’ seventh or eighth seed — a vast improvement for a club that won 31 games last season and is in the midst of the NBA’s longest active playoff drought.
Especially maddening: increasingly futile attempts to give performances like Love’s 36-point, 14-rebound, nine-assist afternoon or Rubio’s 19-point, nine-helper showing much significance.
The Timberwolves led 103-93 after three frames and were shooting 50 percent entering the fourth. In the last period, they shot 23.8 percent and committed as many turnovers (six) as they had in the first three quarters combined.
Adelman went with a small lineup of Rubio, J.J. Barea, Corey Brewer, Shabazz Muhammad and Dante Cunningham to begin the fourth. The Suns (41-29) opened the quarter on a 14-3 run capped by Goran Dragic’s 3-pointer with Love in his face and went ahead for good on a driving layup by Bledsoe with 48.6 seconds remaining.
"We just had a different lineup, tried to look at something new," Love said. "We have to just start fourth quarters better and make more shots."
Entering Sunday with a much more realistic chance of reaching the playoffs than its opponent, Phoenix overcame its sluggish start thanks to 25 points off the bench from Markieff Morris (10-for-13 on field goals, 3-for-3 3s) and four other players with 14 points or more.
The Suns’ 57.5-percent shooting clip was 1/10 of a point from tying the best by a Minnesota opponent all season. That distinction belongs to Houston, which made 57.6 percent of its attempts Thursday in dropping a season-worst 129 points on the Timberwolves.
A Minnesota team built to score did so again, eclipsing the 100-point mark for the 10th time in 11 games. The league’s No. 5 scoring squad had won 10 of its previous 15, providing a glimpse into the efficiency Adelman sought since the season’s outset.
But when crunch time rolls around, this team has often been stagnant. And unless the Timberwolves do the unthinkable in the next three weeks, that’s largely how they’ll be remembered — flashy, fun and encouragingly capable.
But ultimately unable to close the deal.
"We should’ve won that game," Love said, "plain and simple."