Wolves return from road trip with new life

MINNEAPOLIS – The Timberwolves are on their way back to Minnesota Thursday morning after a week on the road in Portland, Oakland, Sacramento and Los Angeles. They come away from the trip with one win – the obvious one, Sacramento – and three losses, and it’s hard to chalk the trip up as anything more than a slight disappointment.

No, it wasn’t terrible. There weren’t blowout losses or games the team was never in. But against teams that were a combined 24-27 when the Timberwolves came to town, one loss would seem to be falling short. It’s almost easy to forget, though, on this road trip that was bookended by the two best pieces of news the team has received this season.

On Nov. 21, the day before the team left for Portland, Kevin Love made his surprise, 34-point return, albeit as a loss. Then, as the team prepared for its Wednesday matchup with the Clippers a week later, it learned that Ricky Rubio had been cleared for full-contact practices with no restrictions, which means his return will be in a matter of just days or weeks. So it’s easy to forget amidst all this that the team is struggling, blowing leads and having trouble closing down games, and though that might have been acceptable a few weeks ago, with Love back, it can’t be overlooked.

Yes, when Love and Rubio were out, it was acceptable to look at every win as one more than the team should have had, as if they were stockpiling them for a brighter future. But the whole point of this offseason was to build a team that wouldn’t be completely powerless without Rubio, unlike last year’s group. But now that Love is back, that means more scoring, more rebounding, one of the league’s best players on the court. That should mean more wins than one win out of five games, especially when Rubio rejoining the team is going to be a gradual transition, not one magic moment after which things are instantly improved.

So what did we learn in the past week about these Timberwolves with Love back and Rubio on the horizon?

Here’s a look:

Defense is down: The defense is faltering, and whether that’s due to Love’s return, fatigue, attrition – who knows. Regardless, the team gave up 100+ points twice in four games on the road; they’d only done so three times in the 10 preceding games. All have been losses, backing up the team’s emphasis on defense and Rick Adelman’s belief that the team can’t win without it.

Offense isn’t compensating to make up: The Timberwolves also never shot more than 43.0 percent on the trip, and their 37.8 percent field goal shooting in Los Angeles marked their second-worst shooting night of the season. Andrei Kirilenko was out, which partially explains that mark, and Love’s shooting hasn’t been great as he recovers from his hand injury. But still, no one is going to win with that level of offense and a defense that isn’t airtight.

Kirilenko and Love need to coexist: Before Love returned, Kirilenko was averaging 13.0 points and 7.8 rebounds. With Love, those numbers have fallen to 10.5 and 6.5, which is somewhat natural, but it seems at times like the offense has shifted away from Kirilenko when perhaps it should not. Kirilenko is actually shooting more since Love’s return, but it’s a matter of him getting the right shots and being something of a leader on offense. Not that Love isn’t the leader, but Kirilenko still has a lot to offer.

Malcolm Lee can play basketball: Second-year player gets the best opportunity of his young career and make the most of it – who’d have thought that would describe Lee early this season rather than Derrick Williams? I certainly didn’t. Last season, no one knew anything about Lee; he’d been injured before the season began and sat for most of it before playing very sparingly at the end. But this year, without Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger, we’ve learned that Lee is more of a shooting guard than a point guard, the kind of player who could someday be a combo guard but isn’t there yet. We’ve learned that he’s talented defensively but that he still commits unnecessary fouls. And on this road trip, during which he started all four games, we’ve learned that at times, he can score, going 11-of-20 from the field. Lee is hardly the optimal starter, but now there’s a hint that he could grow into a perfectly serviceable NBA player.

Losing Budinger was a BIG deal: On the trip, the Timberwolves shot 22.5 percent from long-range, including a 3-of-18 night in Portland. That’s pushed them to the league’s worst 3-point shooting mark (27.7 percent), and it’s hard to imagine their offense clicking without some improvement from beyond the arc.

Alexey Shved is for real, but has a ways to go: He may not be consistent yet, and he’s struggling from long-range like the rest of the team, but Shved continues to post big nights, including his 17-point affair Wednesday. However, he needs to work on keeping his assists up; they’ve faltered since mid-November, and he finished the trip with just 10 in four games and none against the Clippers.

Losing is going to become more difficult: With Love back and Rubio practicing, there are fewer excuses for losing, and nobody cares more about winning than Love. Earlier in the season, a loss would be easy to explain, to chalk up to injuries. It was easy to know that things would only get better, but at some point soon, the personnel improvement is going to stall, and the team is going to have all its weapons at the ready. That could mean a talented, winning team, but it could also mean frustration.

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