Underdog mentality a strength for Wolves

MINNEAPOLIS – With 67 seconds remaining in the Timberwolves’ 2012 home opener, the sold-out Target Center crowd at once took its feet. It was uncanny, almost, the unity with which an entire arena rose and realized that the season it had been dreaming of since long before the last one ever ended would begin with a win.

The fans got just a minute to revel in it. They should have had more time, perhaps, after the Timberwolves’ early dominance, but a minute was enough. When a city is conditioned to believe that a blown lead can’t be recouped and the fourth quarter is for listless sputtering, nights like Friday can be excruciating. When the Timberwolves ceded the lead to the Kings in the third quarter, it was easy to imagine the bottom had dropped out, that this team had regressed to some rougher, rawer form of its preseason self.

Last season, stumbles became spirals into losses that no one wanted to talk about, much less think about. Last season, everyone held their breath and waited for that moment when things would fall out of reach.

Last season …

Last season …

Last season …

If Friday proved anything, it’s that it’s time to forget about last season. The Timberwolves’ comeback against the Kings, which they parlayed into a 92-80 win, wouldn’t have happened last April. No way. And here they are, just one game into this season, with proof that it can happen now. There’s proof that a messy game does not necessarily mean a loss, that struggling to score does not necessarily spell doom.

It’s all so fresh, this notion of coming back. It makes you want to talk about it all day, to pick it apart and figure out what tipped the scales. And yet there’s barely anyone to ask about it.

J.J. Barea, who led the Timberwolves with 21 points, might have a few choice words about the end of last season and those blown games. But Dante Cunningham won’t. Neither will Greg Stiemsma or Chase Budinger. Brandon Roy can’t speak to it, and Andrei Kirilenko was happily ensconced in Russia when game after game slipped away in Minnesota.

That might be the best thing about this new-look team. It has no cause to dwell, no little voice in the back of its collective brain demonically whispering that these kinds of things can’t happen, that they’re the Timberwolves after all, and such is their fate. Last year, it took 20 points and 10 rebounds from Kevin Love, a slew of assists from Ricky Rubio and a dominant Nikola Pekovic in the paint to win. This year, winning can be a different beast.

Before the game, Sacramento coach Keith Smart talked about the difficulty of planning for a team without its stars. Difficulty? Really? But Smart had a good point, as if he somehow saw the game’s messy, hodge-podge energy coming at him an hour before it started.

“A team when their stars are out is pretty dangerous,” Smart said. “It can be any guy on any given night at a particular time in the game.”

And so it was. Barea off the bench was likened to a tornado postgame in the locker room. It was a nickname so convincing that Will Conroy stuck with it, yelling across the room to try to get Tornado’s attention. Greg Stiemsma did everything, scoring nine points to complement his seven rebounds and four blocked shots. Dante Cunningham’s defense hummed and sprung, and in the end, it was energy and resilience that tidied the mess.

The Timberwolves won the game by 12 points while missing 15 of 17 3-pointers and 10 free throws. They shot just 36.8 percent from the field and had just 17 assists (four of which came on their first four scores). They did all that without signing a death sentence, and for that, they should be proud.

“Offensively we’ve got a long ways to go,” coach Rick Adelman said. “We missed so many shots, but we stayed with it in the fourth quarter.

“We’re trying to figure out how we’re going to score when the game’s on the line. We don’t know right now. We’re just kind of searching for it.”

Searching for it. The same could be said for the end of last season, but back then, it was undefined. It was all the things the Timberwolves hinted at on Friday: energy, resilience, contributions across the board. Now, that missing it is offense, and to ease into it will not spell certain losses.

There’s something fun about this team that’s so clearly an underdog from the outset without its stars. It’s not in fighting shape, not yet, but with these players and this coach, it gives the impression that it can someday be.

“I think that goes back to our team’s maturity and our defense,” Cunningham said. “To be able to withstand a barrage like that … to kind of get a time out, get our composure and come back out there and take care of business, that just goes to our maturity.”

With 8:47 remaining in the third quarter, Tyreke Evans drove the ball to the basket and scored, cutting the Timberwolves’ lead to three. The defense seemed to be coming undone, and offense was hardly there to fall back on. But the game marched on, and as the Timberwolves took the ball back down the court, Stiemsma got out of his seat on the bench and took a step forward.

He watched, leaning forward a bit as if urging the ball along and into the proper hands.

He clapped, even as Kirilenko missed a jump shot.

Stiemsma wasn’t conditioned to believe that the whole thing was blown by a sloppy run. Neither is this team, and that’s its greatest asset.

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