MINNEAPOLIS — It can be one of the most dubious junctures in a sports season, when the desired finish goes unfulfilled, yet there’s still a competition to complete.
It’s arrived in Minneapolis later than most in the Timberwolves’ extended playoff absence, which barring the inconceivable will extend to a decade. But as of early Sunday evening, the postseason is almost certainly out of the question.
So what now?
A common denominator among all athletes who reach the top tier of their craft, the baseline desire to claim victory still pulsates through the psyches of Minnesota cornerstones Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. One look at their dejected, tension-infused stares in the locker room Sunday suggests as much.
But it’s begun settling in, even for a pair of competitors who, as long as the play, will probably never be ready to accept defeat.
Another season appears lost. But it’s not over yet.
"That’s the NBA," Rubio said Sunday after his team’s matinee loss to Phoenix. "You’ve got to play another game tomorrow."
That’s become the Timberwolves’ only realistic reward.
With 14 games remaining, Minnesota (34-34) sits 6 1/2games back of eighth-place Dallas and the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. To catch the Mavericks (42-29), the Timberwolves would likely need to win out — an arduous proposition, especially when their remaining schedule features nine opponents above .500, including the Clippers, Spurs, Heat and Rockets.
Minnesota does hold a tiebreaker over Dallas and would have another against seventh-place Memphis (41-28) if it was to win all of its remaining contests. Falling 127-120 to Phoenix on Sunday gives the Timberwolves a 1-2 mark against the Suns this season, though, meaning if both teams were to finish with the same record, Phoenix would earn the higher spot.
But in all actuality, it looks like a three-team race between the Suns, Grizzlies and Mavericks for the West’s seventh and eighth seed. As of Monday, Golden State is two games ahead of Memphis and Dallas, and the five teams above the Warriors are all spread out to between 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 games out of the next highest-spot — all behind frontrunner San Antonio.
Barring a surge that ranks up there among NBA history’s most unlikely, the standings actually favor the Timberwolves in a cruel way. Phoenix’s win Sunday puts it six games ahead of Minnesota in ninth place.
If the 10th-place Timberwolves were to finish a spot ahead of where they are now, they’d forfeit their top-13 protected draft pick to the Suns, thanks to a three-team deal worked by former president of basketball operations David Kahn a day before the 2012 draft.
A lottery selection from among this year’s stout class presents new front-office general Flip Saunders a chance to either build around Love — whose contract includes a player option following next season — or lessen the blow of his departure should he choose to go elsewhere in free agency.
But Saunders didn’t return to the franchise he used to coach, nor did Love come back from hand injuries that kept him out of 64 games last season, merely to build.
They came to break through. Which made blowing a 22-point lead and squandering a season-best 73-point first half Sunday awfully hard to stomach.
"They’re ahead of us, obviously," Love said after the game. "We looked at that; that was our playoffs right there, and we lost.
"So this one hurts a lot more than the others."
And what may sting even more is that Minnesota, even while missing top two centers Nikola Pekovic and Ronny Turiaf for significant stretches, has played some effective basketball in recent weeks. The Timberwolves entered Sunday having won 10 of their past 15 games and through one half were cruising against the surprising Suns, whom few expected to be a playoff contender this year.
A glimpse of what might’ve been. But four wins in 16 games decided by four points or fewer, one of the league’s worst defenses and the inability to string together more than three victories at a time have crippled Minnesota, seemingly beyond playoff repair for the time being.
His or her entire life, an athlete is told to push toward objectives, put forth a maximum effort and let that serve as remuneration. But it’s the tangible benefits, the seasons that stand out in the game program as markedly successful, for which players and fans in this snowy, success-starved market yearn.
But the former may be all Love, Rubio and their teammates have left to reap. That and, of course, the multimillion-dollar paychecks they’ve got coming.
"We just want to win and get closer to the playoffs," Rubio said Sunday, slumping further forward in front of his locker, "but every day, it’s harder and harder."