MINNEAPOLIS – It took Andrei Kirilenko seven seconds to make the first shot.
It took the Timberwolves a full second half not to blow it.
Welcome back – to a season in which nothing is ever easy.
The Timberwolves defeated the 76ers, 94-87, on Wednesday night, ringing in the post-All-Star stretch the way they wanted to, the way it seemed they had to: with a win. As far as this team is concerned, with its injuries and bad luck, it’s almost better to leave it at that. They won, win No. 20, beating a team with a (marginally) better record.
That was what they needed, all of it.
But this win isn’t going to leave anyone complacent. This game, in a snapshot, was the beginning of the fourth quarter, when the Timberwolves opened things with a field goal, a Nikola Pekovic jumper. It opened things strong, and then it went the rest of the quarter without another field goal. The rest of the quarter. A whopping 11:42 in which 16 free throws won them the game – or lost the game for Philadelphia.
It was one of those wins after which the coach throws all the things he’s always said his team should have done after losses out the window. For Rick Adelman, the favorite phrase is that the Timberwolves have to play 48 minutes of basketball. On Wednesday: “You hope we play the whole 48 minutes, but it just got kind of ugly in the second half.” And that was fine because they won, and so let’s all shrug and get back to those goals and that focus on Friday.
There are two ways to look at a win like Wednesday’s. The first is to bemoan what could have been, to point out that the 76ers have now just two more wins than the Timberwolves and that they’re in the lowly East to boot. It’s to point out how well Philadelphia got to Minnesota point guard Ricky Rubio, how much things fell apart in the second quarter, how the Timberwolves’ bench contributed just 16 points on 22.7 percent shooting.
The second way is through rose-tinted glasses. It’s to say that a win is a win, that Pekovic stomped his giant feet all over the 76ers, that Derrick Williams was two rebounds away from a double-double, with 17 points and eight boards. It might be unrealistic, might gloss over the facts, but for these battered and reeling Timberwolves, it might just be the way to go. At least in part.
“I think we have to be a little bit more focused, especially in the fourth quarter,” Kirielnko said. “We only made one field goal, which is not that good. But the good thing is finally, we’ve been able to finish the game, and it’s a good sign. Coming into the second half of the season with a win is very important, I think mentally for us. Kind of (to) get it going.”
Leave it to Kirilenko to wipe any false sheen off a gritty win. But he wasn’t alone. No one was jumping for joy in that locker room or acting like he had just clinched himself a playoff berth, as struggling teams are wont to when they steal a win. As struggling teams are wont to do when they’ve won two of their last seven games, both against sub-.500 opponents. In fact, the Timberwolves haven’t beaten a winning team since Jan. 19, haven’t won two in a row since they strung together four straight from Dec. 7-15. It’s a long road ahead, but Adelman scoffed pregame that the playoffs were out of reach. He’s presenting the thing in an utterly rational way – at least, as rational as “Timberwolves” and “playoffs” can sound together when so much ground is between them and the No. 8 seed and when so much time is between them and Kevin Love’s return from injury.
“I just see different teams go different ways,” Adelman said. “Portland beat us here, and they haven’t won since. And so they’ve dropped back. All these teams can drop back. I saw that Utah score last night. They beat Golden State, and suddenly they’re the same record. (Note: the Jazz are 31-24, the Warriors 30-23.) Golden State had a great thing going until the last two weeks. So I think it’s, what you have to do is you’ve got to win won. And then you’ve got to win two.”
The Timberwolves have won one, no matter how messy, how frustrating, how many eye-rolls it took from Adelman on the sideline and enraged outbursts in Spanish from Rubio. (Countless, and one.) The Timberwolves won one, and they’re hardly complacent, and next, in Adelman’s plan, comes two.
That’s as far as this team needs to think right now.