Timberwolves need to set a physical tone

MINNEAPOLIS — Think of a basketball game like a blank slate. Two teams, no expectations, just 24 players and 48 minutes.

The Timberwolves need to think of games like that, at least. Of course there are talent discrepancies and reputations, superstars, benchwarmers and the vast in-between. But too often, it seems, these Timberwolves let the minutiae of being the injured underdog set the tone. Too often, they set no tone at all. Too often, they forget that the canvas is blank every night — that the score starts at 0-0 no matter what happened the day before, week before, month before.

That was the story, at least in part, on Sunday, when Chicago beat Minnesota in a fashion far more convincing than the 104-97 score. That was the story when the Timberwolves let the Bulls walk all over them for two and a half quarters.

Even though they knew what to expect.

Even though it was their home court.

Even though Chicago beats teams with often little more than brute physicality, and so why not be prepared and act, rather than react?

“That’s what we talked about,” an exasperated Rick Adelman said after the game. “We played them a close game in Chicago and they did that to us. You have to start the game. You can’t wait to get into the game.”

Sure, things changed at halftime, and the Timberwolves outscored the Bulls 54-48 in the second half. That wasn’t enough, though, and there were moments of sheer frustration, of J.J. Barea jawing his way to a technical foul in protest of the Bulls style of play, of Ricky Rubio punching the padded barrier between himself and the baseline seats. There was an abject sense that the game was being acted upon the Timberwolves, rather than the other way around, that the fight they were putting on was as contrived as it was doomed.

But at his locker after the game, Barea was hardly the picture of frustration he’s been after other equally aggravating losses. He said the obligatory lines, about physical play and toughening up and setting the tone, but eventually, his face hinted at a smile. Strange, it would seem, except that’s when you realize: This is Barea’s game. This is Barea’s wheelhouse. Pushy, pesky, elbow-y. Get him talking about diminutive Bulls point guard Nate Robinson, and the hint becomes a full-fledged grin.

Yes, that Nate Robinson. The Barea-sized munchkin who scored 22 points off Chicago’s bench and destroyed the Timberwolves. Asked if Robinson is a pest, Barea responds, “Oh, no question,” still smiling. Because in his book, pest equals good. And maybe in the Timberwolves’ books, too, this should be an equation to remember.

I’m not saying they should play like J.J. Barea every night. That would end up with a fair amount of bruises, ejections and stitches, and Adelman would likely have to be committed. But there’s something there, at the root of Barea’s game, that needs to become contagious. Rubio admitted as much after the game, that his fellow point guard could be a good leader for the team in becoming more physical and aggressive. Playing physical is about more than just the physical, as ridiculous and Yoda-esque as that sounds, and Barea is the perfect example.

It’s a mindset, one augmented by bodies and talent, but a mindset nonetheless.

“Of course it’s in your mind,” Rubio said. “You have to want it. It’s not, ‘Okay, let’s be aggressive. Let’s jump over there.’ You have to want it, because moments that you don’t feel your legs or you’re tired, you have to keep doing it.”

And you get the sense this team wants it. You really do. Even if it’s out of the playoff race, done for the year on April 17, there are still things to play for, or so the players are telling themselves. But in order to capitalize on that, to string together a mini-run and win their first consecutive games since Dec. 15 (yes, that’s 98 days before Sunday), there’s going to have to be a shift in mindset.

The Timberwolves have to believe they can win games, that they can take control and set the tone before their opponents commandeer it. And to do that — it goes back to that notion of toughness.

“If you are playing soft and you just wait and see, you can have a lot of talent, but you’re not going to win games,” Rubio said.

“If you don’t play aggressive, you are nothing.”

Play tough or go home. This season for the Timberwolves, it’s too often been the latter.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.