With a makeshift lineup reminiscent of last year’s injury-riddled campaign, the Timberwolves came surprisingly close to pulling off the improbable Wednesday night.
Then the Thunder remembered they’re the West’s best as the All-Star break approaches.
A six-point swing at the third quarter’s conclusion and fourth’s outset broke open a startlingly even affair. Oklahoma City went on to take care of business and walk out with a 106-97 victory that dropped Minnesota back below .500 and kept it — again — from gaining any ground in the Western Conference standings.
Rick Adelman’s group shares the sentiment of most professional teams and athletes, that victories of a moral nature carry little meaning.
But this defeat, unlike many others this season, wasn’t demoralizing, either.
"I’m really proud of our guys," Adelman said. "They busted their tail the whole game."
Three starters missed the Timberwolves’ third loss in their past four outings. Nikola Pekovic was already out with bursitis in his right ankle. Early Wednesday afternoon, they announced Corey Brewer had left the team to be with his son, born Tuesday. Then shortly before game time, it became apparent Kevin Love was too stiff and sore — particularly in the neck, shoulder and back areas — to participate after absorbing a physical pounding in Tuesday’s home victory over the Lakers.
A lineup of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Luc Mbah a Moute, Dante Cunningham and Ronny Turiaf doesn’t exactly strike the observer as a suitable answer for an opponent that features league MVP favorite Kevin Durant.
But no one made that clear to Adelman’s active players.
Scoring-challenged point guard Rubio made 6 of 12 shots to lead his team with 19 points. Cunningham had 18 and eight rebounds in his first start since last April when Minnesota’s roster was depleted due to injury. Led by J.J. Barea’s 11 points, the Timberwolves bench outscored that of the Thunder 40-28.
Cunningham and Turiaf combined for seven blocks, only sparingly allowing Durant and Co. easy drives to the rim.
"They’re just a competitive team," Thunder guard Reggie Jackson said of the Timberwolves, who fell to 12th place in the West standings and are now 4 Â½ games out of a postseason spot. "They’re fighting to get into the playoffs.
"We’re happy and fortunate to get out with a win."
Said Adelman: "I think it shows that these guys know they can compete. They weren’t afraid to go out there and play with three starters out."
That gumption had Minnesota (24-25) up by as many as six in the first half and tied with Oklahoma City (40-11) at 77 with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter. Had rookie center Gorgui Dieng not goaltended a late Derek Fisher 3-pointer, that tally may have remained entering the final frame.
Instead, the Thunder led 80-77 and then went up, 83-77, on another triple from Jeremy Lamb.
The Timberwolves didn’t get any closer than that the rest of the way, missing several late 3s while being outscored 26-20 in the final period.
Minnesota’s floor general wasn’t hanging his head afterward, though.
"We came out in the game aggressive, and we fought all the way through," said Rubio, who came within two points of tying his season high.
Durant led Oklahoma City with 26 points and nine rebounds. Jackson chipped in 20 points, and Fisher added 13 off the bench.
It was expected Love would attempt to counteract Durant until about 20 minutes before tipoff at Chesapeake Energy Arena. That’s when Love told team trainer Gregg Farnam he was too tight to play, Adelman said.
He’ll have a day off to heal before the Timberwolves take on the Pelicans on Friday at New Orleans Arena. Brewer is expected to return by then, too, while Pekovic remains out indefinitely.