No excuses for Wolves’ lack of energy, Saunders says

The slow-starting Timberwolves' 23.1-point scoring average and 42.1-percent field-goal clip in the first quarter both rank 28th in the NBA.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Some of the Timberwolves’ current woes can’t be helped.

Andrew Wiggins never asked to become one of the team’s primary scoring options so early. Zach LaVine didn’t beg Flip Saunders to let him start at point guard. At no point in time did the club’s founders petition the NBA to ensure placement in the rugged Western Conference. And unless there’s some sort of injury-driven tanking conspiracy underway at 600 First Avenue North, no one planned to have three starters out of the lineup for an extended period of time.

There is, however, one overarching facet that is within Minnesota’s control. It’s a matter of will, not circumstance, and its paltry existence within the organization’s fiber has the Wolves on an 11-game losing streak and sulking at the bottom of the conference standings.

Fans see it when 13,000 of them show up at the Target Center and watch a youthful, spry team play like a cask of aging veterans. Coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders has harped on it. Players have acknowledged it.

"Energy," Saunders said. It isn’t there. And it should be, contends Saunders, the man who assembled this roster.

Within their physical limits, players choose how much effort to exude. Even the Wolves’ consummate energy guy says there’s a dearth, himself included.

"We’ve just got to want it," swingman Shabazz Muhammad said at shootaround ahead of Monday night’s home game against Denver. "It’s our job to come out here and play hard, and that starts in the first quarter."

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The roots are immersed in that opening frame. In eight of its 11 consecutive defeats, Minnesota has been outscored in the first quarter, by an average of 27.5-21.9. The Wolves’ 23.1 scoring average and 42.1-percent field-goal clip in the first quarter both rank 28th in the NBA, while opponents are shooting 49.5 percent — the league’s fourth-highest mark — against them in the initial 12 minutes of games.

Saturday’s 12-point debacle against Utah provided a perfect example. After a game the night before and a late-night flight from Salt Lake City, the Jazz were running on menial sleep. Yet they blew out of the gates with much more visible pizzazz than the Wolves, who played well enough to win four days before in Utah.

The Wolves, meanwhile, had two days off to rest up.

"When we get to the arena, we need to just start focusing," said Muhammad, who had just eight points on 3-of-9 shooting and one rebound Saturday. "I don’t know what it is. When we get here, we need to start getting ready for the game and being focused."

In the first quarter and beyond, Minnesota isn’t running (14.9 fast-break points per game, ninth in the NBA), shooting (43.6 percent, 24th), rebounding (40.9 percent, tied for 26th) or defending (49.4 opponent field-goal percentage, 30th) the way Saunders feels it’s capable.

With 19-to-22-year-olds replacing All-Star Kevin Love as the franchise’s focal point, this was always going to look and feel like a rebuilding season. But loafing isn’t going to help anyone, neither from a developmental or morale standpoint.

"When I look at a game, how does our team perform?" Saunders said. "And our team is not performing well to start games. We’re performing with no energy, and how can that be when we have two 19-year-olds, a 20-year-old and a 21 (-year-old) and you don’t have energy to play a game?"

Indeed, the Wolves’ kinetic struggles transcend the quantifiable.

There are esoteric cues — hanging heads, giving up on plays and lacking a willingness to attack. It could be Wiggins and fellow first-round pick Zach LaVine — both of whom are 19 — hitting the dreaded "rookie wall." It could be a group content to wait for point guard Ricky Rubio, shooting guard Kevin Martin and center Nikola Pekovic to return to the lineup later this month. Or it could be an emotional domino effect, especially for the one-and-done types like Muhammad and Wiggins who rarely lost in high school and college.

"I don’t think guys know how to respond to it yet," said Muhammad, who turned 22 in November. "We’ve got to have a sense of urgency. That’s something that we’ve got to have immediately."

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But there are no excuses, Saunders says, especially for a team with such young, spry legs. The only possible solution he’s come up with is taking away playing time.

"There’ll probably be some changes somewhere, I’m sure," Saunders said. "We can say they hit the wall and all those things. That’s what the NBA is all about, so we’ve got to do something from a perspective of either resting them more, getting them with different lineups or whatever."

But ultimately, eradicating complacency is a matter of personal choice.

"That’s on ourselves," said Wiggins, who’s scored 20 or more points in five of his past six games. "That’s within, coming out and playing hard."

Another bug: Saunders won’t coach the Wolves on Monday night, the team announced, because of an illness. Assistant Sam Mitchell will serve in his place as acting head coach.

Saunders isn’t the only member of the team dealing with sickness. Chase Budinger will miss his second straight game Monday, and Robbie Hummel missed shootaround and is questionable with something similar.

According to Muhammad, the Wolves’ training staff has players taking flu-prevention pills daily after a streak of illnesses has affected the team.

"It’s getting cold out," Muhammad said, "so we’ve got to make sure we take care of our bodies."

Mitchell’s last game as a head coach came Dec. 2, 2008 with Toronto. The next day, the Raptors fired the former NBA coach of the year.

Saunders did not attend Minnesota’s morning shootaround, either.

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