MINNEAPOLIS — For those with a vested interest, it takes a strong stomach to relive the close defeats that have helped shape the Timberwolves’ season to date.
Just last week, the fan base and the team’s collective gut were wrenched a little tighter, thanks in part to a no-call that should’ve sent Kevin Love to the free-throw line against Dallas and a failed trip on a similar play versus Oklahoma City. Then there are the Clippers, who have defeated Minnesota three times by a grand total of 10 points. Lackadaisical efforts at Cleveland and Washington stand out, too.
Every late scenario is different. But if there’s one commonality that points to the Timberwolves’ 0-9 record in games decided by four points or fewer, it’s mental.
"It’s something that we have to understand, that the last three, four minutes of the game is totally different," coach Rick Adelman said. "You’ve got to be more aggressive. You’ve got to be tougher."
In the final two minutes of games where the scoring margin is four points or less, Minnesota is shooting 32.1 percent from the field and has made just 2 of 15 3-pointers and 6 of 13 free throws. Defensively, the Timberwolves are allowing teams to shoot 40 percent (26th in the league) in the same circumstances.
Sometimes, Minnesota digs holes it can’t climb out of — see a 93-92 loss at Cleveland on Nov. 4 and last Monday’s 100-98 defeat against the Mavericks. The Cavaliers led by as many as 23, while the Timberwolves erased a 21-point Dallas advantage only to relinquish it once again in the final moments.
On other occasions, an adversary heats up. In a 102-98 loss to the Clippers on Nov. 20, Chris Paul scored 13 points in a row and 16 of Los Angeles’ final 21. Saturday, Kevin Durant had 23 of his season-high 48 points in the fourth quarter on 7-of-11 shooting.
There are few secrets to an opponent’s plan of attack late in the game, Adelman said.
"You’ve got to anticipate what’s coming at you," said the coach, whose team hosts Phoenix on Wednesday. "Usually, everybody you play, you pretty much know what they’re gonna try to do and who they’re gonna try to go to. We’ve got to respond to that."
A bit of luck might help, too.
The NBA came out and said Love should’ve received two foul shots with 2 seconds remaining in Monday’s game, after Shawn Marion whacked him on the elbow. That would’ve given Love a chance to tie and send the game to overtime. In the first Clippers tilt, put-backs from Nikola Pekovic and Love simply rolled off the rim.
So some move-forward mettle is necessary, too.
"It’s a long year," Adelman said. "You have to come back. You have to be resilient in this league. You can’t dwell on something like that. You have to just try to find a way.
"You start dwelling on the good or bad, and it’s gonna turn on you."
It’d be easy for Love to simmer about his failed late opportunities. In addition to missing three last-second free throws — the last was intentional — with a chance to tie or take a lead against the Thunder on Saturday, he misconnected on a 3-pointer with 2 seconds left in the Cleveland game that would’ve put Minnesota on top.
The ability to come through late is a superstar mark Love is still trying to attain consistently this season.
But it’s not all on him.
Adelman sometimes has had a hard time trusting Ricky Rubio in late situations, at least until recently. Of the Timberwolves starters, Rubio has played the fewest fourth-quarter minutes. He’s been benched for more than half the final frame on 10 separate occasions.
In a factoid somewhat skewed by a handful of lopsided wins, backup point guard J.J. Barea has seen more fourth-quarter action than any Minnesota starter. The veteran reserve can score, particularly from outside, but he’s also wont to chuck up an ill-advised 3 with time a factor.
Rubio’s scoring prowess isn’t yet on par with his setup skills, forcing Adelman to choose between points (Barea) and assists (Rubio) when a game is on the line.
The ball often finds its way to Pekovic during crunch time, too, given his ability to outmuscle most defenders in the post and finish around the rim. But he is 0-for-6 in the final 24 seconds of games where the scoring margin is three points or fewer.
Martin, for all his scoring ability, hasn’t come up big late, either. He’s taken just seven shots inside the final two minutes of games within four points of being tied.
The Timberwolves aren’t a lock-down defensive team, so waning-moments scoring is going to remain paramount as the season rolls along. Help defense becomes increasingly crucial in the latter stages of contests, too.
More than those, though, Adelman says, his team requires recognition that when the clock starts ticking down, it’s time to zero in.
Only then can the NBA’s second-highest-scoring team add the term "clutch" to its repertoire.
"You have to execute down the stretch. You’ve got to defend and rebound. You’ve got to get stops when the game’s on the line, and that’s something, obviously, we haven’t done in close games.