MINNEAPOLIS — Ghost of a hope, meet recurring, debilitating demons.
Crushing in infirmity an even more injury-riddled opponent, the Timberwolves dispatched of Denver on Wednesday then disbanded for what they say is a long-awaited, much-needed weeklong break between games. The enthused, cliche-riddled vibe of entering the extended All-Star weekend on a positive note permeated the Target Center’s home dressing room afterward.
"We needed a win like that," point guard Ricky Rubio said.
Said backup guard J.J. Barea: "I think this is great. I think this will give a little confidence when we get back and try to get on a roll."
And forward Kevin Love: "We had kind of been treading water there. We knew we needed a win."
But for a team that’s dug itself a massive hole and is missing two of its top three scorers until further notice, Wednesday night’s 117-90 win was a small bandage.
And Minnesota (25-28) needs more of a tourniquet.
Thanks to a 52.3-percent shooting output and a healthy helping of Nuggets gaffes (21 turnovers leading to 29 points, for starters), the Timberwolves snapped a four-game losing streak in front of 12,139 spectators. Love’s latest near-triple-double, Corey Brewer’s cherry-picking payoffs and Rubio’s assertiveness quickly helped alter the tone of a team that’s dropped six of its last eight and is six games out of a playoff spot.
It came against a group with nine fully healthy players that’s on a four-game skid of its own.
But while this Minnesota group retains optimism, it’s tempered by a lack of naivety. One that goes well beyond the fact it squashed a team it rightly should’ve Wednesday — even with Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin out.
"It was a really important game, but now that’s over with," coach Rick Adelman said. "We know where we stand."
"We’re 52 games in, so there’s 30 games left — still a chance for a nice push," Love said. "We just have to go out there, and we have to take it."
Said Brewer: "We’ve got a lot of work to do just to get ourselves a chance to get in. . . . We’ve got to try and make our run."
On its own, Wednesday’s win is nowhere near enough to close a significant standings gape or erase statistical sticking points like 1-12 in games decided by four points or less, 1-12 when trying to get back above .500 or 10-year postseason absence. But there were signs of life here — and more than just a 27-point victory over a severely crippled West foe that had former Timberwolves guard Randy Foye starting at the one spot while nursing ankle and hamstring ailments.
Love looked a little lither after taking hits to nearly every part of his chiseled, 6-foot-10 frame in the past two weeks. He hit six 3-pointers — a warm-up for Saturday’s 3-point contest at All-Star weekend before Love starts in the game itself Sunday — on the way to 32 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists.
"I was pretty sore before the game still," said Love, who watched most of the fourth quarter as Minnesota’s reserves took over. "But once I got going, I felt good. I was happy that we got the large lead. I really needed to sit down those last eight minutes or whatever it was."
Rubio attacked the basket like he did in two games that Love missed earlier this month, scoring 11 points and distributing en route to 12 assists. He’d previously said it’s his primary duty to delegate, but when he proves a viable scoring threat, it opens up the floor significantly.
"It changes what the defense can do," Adelman said. "Once he makes a few shots, the big guys have a tendency to get up more, and his guy’s trying to get around a pick, not going under, and it opens up driving lanes for him."
Even against former teammates that know his tendencies as well as anyone, leak-out specialist Brewer scored 22 points and added five steals.
And a pair too many rebounds, Adelman joked.
"We don’t know where he got two rebounds," said Adelman, who returned from a two-day absence after helping his wife take care of a health issue. "He was past half-court almost the whole game, so we told them to check the game film for those. He was out streaking."
Barea led the bench effort with 18 points on a perfect 8-of-8 shooting night — easily the best of his nine-year career. Ronny Turiaf continued the best rebounding stretch of his NBA tenure, pulling down 11 rebounds, blocking four shots and dishing out three assists.
He’s had double-digit boards in three straight games, the longest such streak of his career. It’s a good sign for depth when Pekovic, who missed his ninth straight game with right-ankle bursitis.
No word on when that’ll be, and Martin’s situation is slightly less murky. The shooting guard said before Wednesday’s game he "hopes" to be back by Minnesota’s Feb. 22 game at Utah, the start of a five-game Western Conference road trip that stands to either keep the Timberwolves’ hopes alive or derail them completely.
Before that, the Timberwolves host Eastern Conference champion contender Indiana next Wednesday.
"If you just keep pushing, if you just keep doing the little things you’ve been doing, you might not see success right away," Turiaf said. "Eventually, you keep pushing, you’re gonna see success."
Come back strong, and the possibility remains reality. Continue on the first 52 games’ trajectory, and in comes the flood of questions about Adelman and Love’s willingness to stick around here much longer and the idea of tanking to keep a protected lottery pick.
Still, there’s a sliver of a chance that can all be alleviated, or at the very least delayed.
If at all, and for how long, are up to the group that clicked in pretty much every facet Wednesday night.