MINNEAPOLIS — J.J. Barea raised his arms in incredulity, the most J.J. Barea of shrugs. It was directed mostly at the refs — he ended up with a technical foul — but at least partly at the shot he’d just accidentally assisted. It was the sloppiest kind of pretty.
As the clock ticked down at the end of the third quarter, Barea had just heaved a shot while teetering beyond the 3-point line, off-balance and off-mark. But as the ball wobbled toward the basket — or toward a spot slightly to the left of the basket — Andrei Kirilenko leapt out of nowhere, tipping it in.
And Barea was incredulous, and the crowd, so prepared to be horrified by the heave, was astonished, and the Minnesota Timberwolves were up, 89-87.
It was ugly, but there were flashes of luck (or skill, or maturity or really whatever you want to call some especially fortuitous breaks) when it mattered most in the Timberwolves’ 111-107 win over the Suns on Saturday. The ugly was the 15-3 margin of fast-break points in favor of the Suns. The ugly was combined 20 percent 3-point shooting, 19 missed free throws between the two teams. The ugly was the frenzied, frenetic clip that colored much of the second half, when it seemed like whoever scored last would win.
Indeed, the Timberwolves scored last. And they won. That, in its scrappy, harrowing way, was a funny kind of pretty. It was pretty for a team whose past two games had come down to the last seconds and slipped away, a team that has carried leads into the fourth quarter and lost them seven times this season. It was pretty in spite of an inability to contain Phoenix on defense or generate turnovers, in spite of the team at times trying too hard to make the big plays when all it needed were the fundamentals.
It was pretty because the Timberwolves got what they needed when they needed it. They got a turnover, one of just four on the night for the Suns, with 5.6 seconds remaining and the game within three points. Dante Cunningham snared the ball and was fouled. He made only one of two free throws — of course he did, on a night like this — but that was enough to end it.
“(The Suns) were really good, efficient, offensively,” coach Rick Adelman said. “Assists, turnovers, everything. We needed to make stops, and we did a great job when we were three up at the end there as far as switching everything and making it tough on them.”
That’s what we’ll remember from this one, Cunningham’s steal. It’ll overshadow the all too many moments when the game seemed downright exhausting to watch and the sense that to beat an 11-win Phoenix team should have been a lot easier. But that’s just how it is. Alexey Shved’s two missed 3-pointers against New York and Houston, cementing three-point losses in each contest, are what we’ll remember from those games, even though the Timberwolves played well against talented teams. This is a tricky sport rendered simple by a box score and a singular W.
“At least at the end, everything was good,” center Nikola Pekovic said. “We won the game. That was our only goal.”
It might sound simplistic, but if anyone is going to tell it like it is, it’s Pekovic, and even a game like that can provide some good lessons. The Timberwolves shot a collective 50.6 percent from the field, their third-best shooting performance of the season, and they needed it. They’ve been looking for shots to fall, and they were, even for Kevin Love, who’s struggled with consistency since his return. Even if the shooting came hand-in-hand with mediocre defense, it was okay. Nights like Saturday mean confidence, even if they are the product of little more in the end than some well-timed twitches and swipes.
The luck is irrelevant. The luck is overshadowed by Love’s 23 points, Pekovic’s 28, Kirilenko’s 20. It’s overshadowed by Shved’s 10 assists, Love’s 18 rebounds and Derrick Williams’ accurate shooting.
And so the Timberwolves’ record spiked to 14-13, marking their best start since 2005-06. So they capped December with a 7-5 record, their first winning December since 2004. So they did it all in front of a sell-out crowd, on its feet at the end. It sounds halfway decent on paper, even if it could have been done in far grander fashion.
This was the kind of game in wich Adelman’s penchant for aggravated head-shaking is noticeable. After certain plays, it’s impossible not to look at the coach, to watch him twitch and sigh and shrug. Take Williams’ alley-oop dunk attempt at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The forward sprung, the ball was there, but the dunk was not, not at all, hitting the rim and shooting halfway to the rafters, it seemed.
“It looks great if it completes,” Adelman said. “But if it doesn’t, it’s a killer.”
The same could have been said for the game as a whole. It sure looks fine now, a couple hours removed, the botched plays and mistakes not quite so grating on paper. But it could have been a killer. It really could have.