MINNEAPOLIS — Ricky Rubio’s bearded-yet-boyish face furrowed with loosed adrenaline, a primal scream emanating from the bottom of his throat. The Timberwolves point guard, 6-4 and 185 pounds, had wrested the ball away from Toronto’s Chuck Hayes — who’s 6-6, 250 — enough to force a jump ball. Rubio won the ensuing tip by the length of a fingernail, only to miss a layup at the other end that would’ve brought Minnesota within a long-range basket of tying.
On the Raptors’ next possession, one of Steve Novak’s five 3-pointers gave them a 93-85 advantage with 7 minutes, 28 seconds remaining.
Corey Brewer let out a similar symphony of emotion after catching a floor-length pass and dishing to Dante Cunningham for a one-handed floater that capped a 17-2 Timberwolves run and gave them a 50-48 lead late in the second quarter.
"Let’s go," Brewer screamed repeatedly.
Toronto scored five of the game’s next seven points, three on Novak’s second triple. Minnesota would never lead again.
Kevin Love was Kevin Love, hitting 4 of 9 3s to break Rashad McCants’ franchise record for made 3s in a season and coming within an assist of his second career triple-double.
But the last helper never came.
"You give everything," Rubio said, "and you have to go home not happy, because you lost."
The Timberwolves’ 2013-14 season. And the 111-104 defeat that may have decided its outcome.
Now sitting 5 1/2 games back from the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, middling Minnesota (31-31) isn’t mathematically eliminated. Far from it, really — victory in 15 or more of their 20 remaining contests would put the Timberwolves in position to sneak in.
That’s if Dallas, Phoenix or Memphis — the three teams ahead of Minnesota in the standings — go cold. It also requires winning close games (the Timberwolves haven’t been able to do that this season) and knocking off not one but at minimum two or three top-level opponents (that’s happened only on occasion).
"We’ve got to go out," coach Rick Adelman said, "and we’ve got to win games we’re not supposed to win."
Said center Nikola Pekovic, when asked if there’s still hope for the playoffs: "We just try to win as many games as we can. Of course, everybody would like to be there, but you can’t really think about that."
The frustration present in both men’s voices isn’t unfounded. The sequence that played out in front of 13,116 fans Sunday is an all-too-familiar phenomenon.
As soon as Adelman went to his bench, Atlantic Division leader Toronto (35-26) put together an 18-0 run spanning the first two quarters. Minnesota answered with its own jaunt, led by Love and Pekovic and capped by Brewer’s nifty assist to Cunningham knifing through the lane.
But the Raptors, No. 3 in the East under former Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey, opened the second half with an 11-4 run, maintained their edge after a pair of Love free throws forged a 64-all tie in the third quarter, then held a three-possession lead until Brewer intentionally missed a free-throw, scored, drew a foul and converted what amounted to a four-point play with 20.7 seconds left.
But that wasn’t enough time for Minnesota to pull off the improbable.
"It’s a game we just didn’t do enough to win," Adelman said.
Yielding a bevy of wide-open looks, the Timberwolves defense — third-to-last in the league in opponent field-goal percentage — allowed Toronto to connect on 14 of 24 3s. Novak — who played in just his 37th game this season and scored a campaign-best 15 points — made the bulk of them, but DeMar DeRozan (25 points, seven rebounds) hit the most important one, giving the Raptors a double-digit advantage with a little more than a minute left.
As he trotted back down the court, DeRozan fired an R-rated taunt at the Minnesota bench, much in the vein of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant’s Target Center antics earlier this season.
Toronto guard Kyle Lowry recorded his second triple-double of the season, while Love’s 36 points, 11 boards and nine assists came up just short of one. He brought his converted 3s total to 144 this season, two more than McCants made in 2007-08.
But it wasn’t just the Love show; Pekovic had his first double-double (17 points, 11 rebounds) since returning from his right-ankle injury, Brewer tied a career high with six steals, and Rubio overcame foul trouble to record seven assists and two takeaways.
As Rubio exited after picking up his sixth foul late Sunday, some choice words for the officials drew a technical foul.
Before the final buzzer even sounded, Brewer began walking toward the tunnel, throwing his headband down on the floor in disgust.
Love entertained reporters’ inquiries even more tacitly, his head buried further in his chest than normal as he refused to make eye contact with anyone surrounding him.
"We’ve got players who come out every night and fight," Love said. "It just wasn’t enough tonight.