Timberwolves, Love endure oh-so-close loss at the hands of Thunder

Minnesota is 0-9 in games this season decided by four points or less and 0-for its last seven chances to go over .500.

Jesse Johnson/Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — In and out. Back iron. No rim, on purpose.

And the latest, most deflating defeat in this topsy-turvy Timberwolves season.

Less than a week after feeling robbed following a no-call in the final seconds, Kevin Love received his whistle Saturday night at the Target Center. But with Minnesota trailing by two and three free-throw chances to do something about it, the superstar coming off a December to remember looked as human as he has since missing most of last season with a broken hand.

"I just missed them," Love said of his errant foul shots with 2.2 seconds left in a 115-111 loss to Oklahoma City. "They were flat and short and there was no real air under them. I just missed them."

Thunder 115, Timberwolves 111

Love came into the night shooting 82.8 percent from the free-throw line this season. He can’t remember ever missing four freebies in a row (he’d clanged an and-one off the front of the rim with a chance to regain the lead for the Timberwolves with 27 seconds left, then Kevin Durant hit a step-back jump shot on the Thunder’s next trip down the floor). His coach, teammates and Love himself can’t envision a better potential game-winning scenario than what transpired before 18,065 spectators Saturday night.

But he couldn’t deliver.

"I’ll take K-Love in that situation no matter what," small forward Corey Brewer said.

And coach Rick Adelman: "It happens to the best of players. It’s just one of those things."

And Love: "You can put any number on that, and I’ll take it every single time. I’ll put me on the free-throw line every single time, too."

The NBA later admitted a similar opportunity was snatched away Monday against Dallas when Shawn Marion slapped Love’s arm on a long 2 try in the closing seconds. This time, Love rose for a 3 on the left wing — his favorite spot from long distance — and coaxed a mid-air foul from Kendrick Perkins.

A slight grin tugged at Love’s mouth before he stepped into the semicircle. Finally, he’d received his chance.

The first shot rolled around the side of the rim and fell to the floor. Trailing 113-111 after Durant’s final dagger, the Timberwolves (16-17) could still tie.

Another brick, this one off the rectangle that connects hoop to backboard.

Nightlong energy was sucked out of the Target Center and into the cold Minnesota night. Love then tried to intentionally brick the third shot in hopes of his team retaining possession, but it didn’t catch rim, and Oklahoma City received the ball out of bounds.

This was the same Kevin Love who led all NBA scorers with 30 points per game and ranked third in rebounding during the final month of 2013, becoming just the fifth player since 1985-86 to record 350 points, 15 rebounds, 50 assists and 30 made 3s in a single month. He made 80 of 94 (85.1 percent) free throws during that time, too.

"Nobody can do that," Durant said of his former AAU opponent and offseason training partner.

But Saturday, it was Durant who provided the final punch. And several before that.

"Kevin Durant went off," Love said.

Did he ever.

Shouldering the offensive load with Russell Westbrook injured once again — the point guard missed the Thunder’s first trip here, a blowout Minnesota win early in the season — Durant scored a season-high 48 points on 16-of-32 shooting, went 12-for-13 from the free-throw line and drilled four piercing 3s in the fourth quarter.

An icy stare and some vitriolic verbiage toward the Timberwolves’ bench accompanied the final triple, a left-wing rainbow that brought Oklahoma City within 97-96 with 7 minutes, 2 seconds to go.

Love answered repeatedly, scoring 12 of his 30 points in the final frame.

But Durant was just a bit more clutch, helping the Thunder (26-7) erase a deficit that stood at 13 — the largest for either team — early in the fourth. He scored 10 points during a 13-2 run to open the period and finished with 23 points during it.

"The guy just took over," said Adelman, whose team held Durant to 13 points on 4 of 11 shooting in the teams’ clash Nov. 1. "When he gets going like that . . . he just puts a lot of pressure on your defense."

As he has in the teams’ previous meetings, Brewer did the bulk of defending Durant with Luc Mbah a Moute sidelined due to a left groin strain. Brewer frequently stayed step-for-step with Durant but fouled out with 30 seconds to go on a close call when Jeremy Lamb hit the floor hard chasing after a rebound.

Lamb sunk two free throws to make it 111-109, and the Timberwolves never led again.

"I just wished I would’ve got to be out there that last play," Brewer said. "That’d have been nice. It’s tough. That hurts."

The cumulative effects are even more excruciating. Adelman’s bunch is 0-9 in games this season decided by four points or less and 0-for its last seven chances to go over .500.

In moving into a tie for first in the Western Conference standings, the Thunder spoiled a collectively gutsy performance by Minnesota’s starters, all of whom played between 33 and 43 minutes. Nikola Pekovic controlled the paint with Love en route to 31 points and 11 rebounds, Kevin Martin scored 17 points, Brewer had 15 and Ricky Rubio used an early spurt to finish with 13 points and 10 assists.

Love had 14 rebounds and five assists to go with his 11-of-21 shooting night. The Timberwolves held a 66-46 points-in-the-paint advantage and turned 22 Thunder turnovers into 21 points.

"We did everything but win," Adelman said.

The Minnesota bench provided a measly five points, all from J.J. Barea, for the second time in five games.

With Adelman riding his top unit, Love played the entire second half and admitted fatigue could’ve played a factor in his missed free throws.

But they’re simply shots he must make, he said.

"I’m an 80-85 percent free-throw shooter," Love said. "I make that shot. . . . I’m sure people will say different (expletive) that they have to say, but in this league, you come back and we try to fight the next day."

According to Pekovic, Love came into the Timberwolves’ dressing room and apologized to his teammates following the defeat.

He needn’t have, Pekovic said.

"It’s not his fault," Pekovic said. "Our team is gonna support him.

"You have to (move on). We just need to learn from our mistakes. We’ve got another game in two days (at Philadelphia). We can’t think on this game."

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