Timberwolves drop another airtight contest

MINNEAPOLIS – There’s this music that plays at the Target Center coming out of breaks when games are close late. It’s got this “leading up to a great cage match,” Rocky-esque vibe, high drama and such, the sort of thing that’s supposed to inspire confidence and make the veins in players’ temples bulge.

On Friday, though, it was the Timberwolves’ death knell. They’d heard it before.

On Friday, you had to know better. That music had played at some point Wednesday against San Antonio, when the thing was within four points with just more than four minutes left. It had played Monday, too, against Portland, the night when the Timberwolves could have tied the game at the buzzer and failed. A week before, against the Lakers, there was a five-point margin with five minutes left, another time when that music, coupled with momentum, seemed perhaps appropriate.

Against New York, though, after each of those three close games had ended in a loss, the music seemed prescient of something other than the win it was attempting to drum up. It signaled a close game in its final minutes, a game that needed momentum and breaks to go the Timberwolves’ way. It would almost be simpler to believe it’s something Pavlovian – hear music, collapse – and it’s hard to say if it’s better or worse that there’s an explanation beyond that.

Because yet again, things collapsed. Yet again, a crucial shot was missed, this time by Luke Ridnour with a Tyson Chandler block assisting the process. That was with 24 seconds left and the Timberwolves down 95-94, closing the book on Minnesota. There were questionable calls that went against the Timberwolves, one instance of J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton galloping down the court after a Timberwolves foul, once they knew the game was theirs, with punch-drunk grins plastered on their faces, rubbing it in. This was the Knicks’ game in those final seconds, theirs and no one else’s.

And the reason is this: The Knicks have a superstar, plain and simple. The Knicks have Carmelo Anthony, his 12 points in the game’s final six minutes mattering as much as his status. Carmelo Anthony commands respect. He gets calls. He’s the go-to guy, and surrounded by shooters who can space the floor, he’s at times impossible to stop.

The Timberwolves – they had Ridnour. They’ve had Dante Cunningham, in the past, and Alexey Shved, Chase Budinger once in November when it worked. There have been valiant late-game efforts, but Ridnour? Cunningham? Shved? These are not the names that leave you quaking. These are solid players, hard workers, a steady past and two bright futures. But they aren’t The Guy. Ridnour and Shved, sopping wet and weight combined, would maybe tip the scale against Anthony. Cunningham is strong, sure, but when he runs down the court to contest a late-game shot, even a J.R. Smith shot, he’s going to draw the foul if anything looks even marginally amiss.

Even if it isn’t. And there’s nothing he can do about it.

The Timberwolves need their superstar, because against the Knicks – against a lot of teams, really – superstar by committee just is not going to pan out.

But give them credit where credit is due. Rick Adelman does.

“We just have to play with the people we have and find ways to make plays,” he said after the loss. “I thought Luke made a good decision. … The calls went the other way. We have to find a way to make plays in the (last) three or four minutes.”

But what else can the man say, really? I want Kevin Love back. Give me Kevin Love. Hand or no hand, you hear me? Add in some foot-stomping, maybe, too. Hardly. Adelman is doing what he can with what he has in a situation that’s teetering on untenable.

Look at the box score from Friday night, and apart from 3-point shooting (the Timberwolves were especially dismal, 7.7 percent), it’s nearly a mirror image. Timberwolves shooting 37-of-80, Knicks 38-of-81. Timberwolves made 19 free throws, Knicks 16. Timberwolves with 42 rebounds, Knicks with 41. Both with 19 assists. Eighteen personal fouls for the Timberwolves, 19 for the Knicks. Six steals by Minnesota, five by New York. You get the picture. This was an even game, incredibly so, one where if you had no idea which team was at the top of the Eastern Conference and which at the bottom of the West, you’d have little to no inclination as to who might win.

Except, you know, that whole Melo thing, those minutes where he grabbed the game by its neck and squeezed until it turned Knicks blue. That’s the difference.

In the locker room postgame, Derrick Williams couldn’t help but smile as he said the name. Carmelo. Superstar. Carmelo. Superstar. The kid is still a little bit (a lot) in awe, and it’s hard to blame him. He’s 21 and has watched Anthony for the past decade, watched him win each season, over and over. And now he’s going up against him, getting on the wrong side of the refs in the process, because who is he other than a 21-year-old who’s still grasping at his potential?

“It’s a little tough,” he said. “It’s just, he’s a superstar, man. You can’t really say too much about it. You can’t really complain.”

Just minutes later, Love tweeted twice. “We play like that we will win a lot of games #wolvesunited,” read the first. “Great effort. Guys played so hard tonight,” the second followed up. Love had been in attendance, sitting in his sport coat behind the bench, just his second game back in Minneapolis since his Jan. 15 hand surgery. And the tweets were the right sentiment, they really were.

But they also unwittingly rubbed it in. Superstar. Superstar. Superstar. And right now, the Timberwolves’ superstar can do little more than tweet.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.