MINNEAPOLIS — Those who claim there are no mountains in Minnesota haven’t been to a Timberwolves game this year.
Somewhere between the state’s NBA team and resurgence lies a large, looming butte with a nice, big ".500" plastered on its face. Six times — five in the month of December — the Timberwolves have had a chance to reclaim a winning record.
"Something always happens," shooting guard Kevin Martin said before his team’s latest stop short of the summit.
Monday night at the Target Center, a lot happened.
Tugging at the heartstrings of a vocal, 16,111-strong crowd, the Timberwolves erased a mammoth deficit, only to walk off the floor bewildered when Kevin Love drew contact on a last-second 3-point attempt and no foul was called. Dallas left a bitterly cold Upper Midwest with a narrow 100-98 victory — its first in three tries against Minnesota (15-16) this season — and an early leg up for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The Timberwolves left wondering why Shawn Marion wasn’t whistled for reaching in on Love and why they can’t seem to gain a winning record despite ample opportunity to do so.
"I wish I knew," coach Rick Adelman said.
Said small forward Corey Brewer, whose third-quarter burst helped negate Dallas’ 21-point advantage: "We’ve got to figure out a way to get over the hump."
Had officials called what looked like a sure slap on Love’s arm by Marion, Minnesota’s hopes for eclipsing that hurdle would’ve remained intact with less than 2 seconds remaining.
Love took an inbound pass from Ricky Rubio with 3 seconds left and took one dribble past Marion on the left wing. Marion extended his right arm and caught Love on the way up for a long 2-pointer.
Love flailed his arms in attempt to get a call and laughed his way off the court exasperatedly after it never came. Adelman stared on in disbelief.
Referees Ed Malloy, David Guthrie and Scott Twardoski, meanwhile, grabbed their warmup jackets and hustled out of the arena. It was Malloy that stood right in front of Love and Marion when the play occurred, and he and Guthrie — stationed behind the play on the left elbow — both waved off the shot.
A chorus of jeers rang out after the main scoreboard displayed a video replay. Love walked toward a TV monitor in search of another look.
"I didn’t know how to react," said Love, who finished with a game-high 34 points and 11 rebounds. "I couldn’t, wasn’t going to yell at (the officials); that wasn’t going to do anything. I just walked off the court, tried to — you know — keep my head up.
"I’m the type of person that if you see a foul, an obvious foul, you call it. I thought that was pretty, pretty obvious. Just look at the replay."
Adelman was more abrasive, characterizing the sequence as a show of disrespect for one of the game’s greatest at the moment.
"He got fouled," said Adelman in a tirade that could see him fined by the league. "I wonder what that would have been if Nowitzki, LeBron James, all the top players in the league — a guy reaches on a last-second shot like that, instead of challenging it. Maybe they don’t understand that Kevin is one of the top five players in this league."
But without a lackluster first-half showing, Minnesota never would’ve needed to rely on a ref’s late discretion.
Sparked by 21 first-half points from Marion (season-high 32 total on 14 of 19 shooting), the Mavericks outscored the Timberwolves 33-20 in the second quarter and led 62-43 at halftime. Coming in averaging 14.2 turnovers per game, Minnesota coughed it up 13 times in the first half alone, thanks in part to Dallas’ actively tenacious interior defense.
The Mavericks shot 60 percent before the break and held the Timberwolves’ often-unproductive bench to five points — all from J.J. Barea.
"Part is our fault," said center Nikola Pekovic, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds for his fifth straight double-double. "We played this first half really bad. It’s not even our basketball, how we play all season long."
Brewer’s 14 points in the third didn’t end up being enough, even after the last two of them came off a patented Love outlet and subsequent transition dunk and tied the contest at 81 entering the fourth. Minnesota won the third 38-19 and led by as many as three early in the final period.
Then the Timberwolves happened across that mountain again.
Marion hit back-to-back 3s to highlight an 8-0 run that put Dallas back up by seven with 3:05 remaining. Pekovic found Love on an alley-oop, made two free throws and then finished off a nice entry pass from Ricky Rubio to make it 100-98 with 39.9 seconds to go.
Monta Ellis missed at the other end, and Pekovic got a good look inside again with 7.9 seconds remaining. Samuel Dalembert rebounded for Dallas but traveled, presenting the Timberwolves one last gasp.
With a foul to give, Calderon grabbed Rubio at the 3-second mark. Then came the final play, which sent the entire Minnesota roster into a state of shock.
But this wasn’t solely on the officials, Adelman said.
"If we play like we did in the second half, we’ll get through this," the coach said. "It’s just disappointing, because you got back and couldn’t get over the hump."
Adelman also admitted he may have waited too long in the fourth quarter to reinsert Rubio for Barea. The latter missed a critical late 3 and finished with five points on 2-for-4 shooting.
The rest of the reserves went 0-for-8.
"We need to get our bench going," Love said. "I don’t know what we can do to light a fire under them, but five points is not OK. Our starters, we didn’t play particularly well on the defensive end, but we held up our end of the bargain in the second half. We just needed that extra push when guys need a rest, and we need to find that somehow."
Love now has scored 25 or more points in the past 11 games, a franchise-record streak, and has scored 30 or more points or pulled down 10-plus rebounds in all 30 contests he’s played this season.
But his latest gargantuan effort couldn’t get the Timberwolves back over .500 for the first time since Nov. 23. To make matters worse, Dallas (18-13) moved to three games ahead of Minnesota for the West’s eighth playoff spot. It may be early in the season to be standings-watching, but these are the kind of setbacks that can come back to haunt teams when spring rolls around.
Especially when they play out like Monday’s did.
"There’s no excuse," said Rubio, who recorded his 1,000th career assist in the loss. "This game hurts, especially because you don’t get the win, and because they get the win. It’s a team you’re fighting with. Especially in the West, it’s so close . . . that one game makes a difference."