Wolves fizzle in fourth quarter in loss to Rockets
MINNEAPOLIS — By the time the final buzzer reverberated around an emptying Target Center on Monday night, Dante Cunningham, Gorgui Dieng, Chase Budinger and a handful of other Timberwolves were already halfway to the tunnel.
Like an overworked accountant at the end of tax season, Minnesota resembles a team in urgent need of a chance to reset, recharge and reevaluate.
Fortunately, there’s one coming after Wednesday’s home game against Denver.
"Mentally, I think we’re kind of beat up a little bit," acting head coach Terry Porter said after the Timberwolves’ 107-89 loss to Houston — their fourth straight and sixth in their past seven outings. "But we have to respond. That’s the nature of this league.
"No one’s gonna feel sorry for us. I can tell you that much."
Porter oversaw another squandered effort while Rick Adelman was away for personal reasons. Kevin Love came back from injury with a first-half surge, then wilted after the break. Minnesota (24-28) hung with the Western Conference’s No. 5 team for three quarters then scored 11 points in the final one, continuing a season-long trend of blown opportunities.
Starters Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin watched from behind the bench again, both out indefinitely with injuries.
After succumbing to a spread-out Rockets (35-17) effort, the Timberwolves are further below .500 than they’ve been all season. With one game left before the All-Star break, they’re 6 1/2 contests back of eighth-place Golden State, which currently holds the West’s final playoff spot.
"It’s burning the candle at both ends, basically, with there being less and less games, and we just can’t continue to lose," said Kevin Love, who came back from a one-game absence and scored a season-high 23 first-half points but had only eight the rest of the way. "Hopefully . . . . . we’ll go into the break, get a few days’ rest, and guys will continue to get healthy, get a little break with their mind and body and be ready to go."
In the past five full NBA seasons (excluding the 2011-12 lockout-shortened campaign), it’s taken the Western Conference’s eighth and final seed at least 45 wins to secure its postseason position. In order to eclipse that plateau, Minnesota can afford only nine more losses the rest of the way.
It’s a bleak outlook for snapping the league’s longest current postseason drought, which at present stands at nine seasons.
"Whether we’re below or above .500, we’re not looking at record," said point guard Ricky Rubio, who averaged 18.3 points in his three previous games but scored seven on 2-for-10 shooting Monday. "We just want to play, want to do our thing, play as a team, improve. We just have to keep doing what we are doing."
Perhaps not what they’ve been doing lately, though.
In each of its past seven contests, Minnesota’s either led or trailed by 10 or less entering the fourth quarter. It’s claimed victory once and has been outscored 205-159 in the final periods of those games.
"We’ve been in pretty good position," said Love, who played with a sore left quad that kept him out of Saturday’s loss to Portland. "Those first few minutes, the other team just gets off to a better start than we do and pushes the lead up. We just need to be better in the fourth quarter."
The latest late lethargy came down to the game’s simplest tenet. The Timberwolves missed wide-open shots, and the Rockets hit whether they were guarded or not.
Trailing just 82-78 entering the fourth, Minnesota missed 19 of 24 field-goal attempts during the final 12 minutes and finished the game shooting 35.6 percent. Houston, though, made 11 of 20 tries, outscored the Timberwolves 25-11 in the fourth and connected on 47.6 percent of its shots in the contest.
It was Minnesota’s lowest-scoring fourth quarter this campaign and the fewest final-frame points mustered by a Rockets opponent all season.
"Maybe we run out of gas," Rubio said.
All five Houston starters scored in double figures, led by Chandler Parson’s 20 — eight in the fourth quarter. Dwight Howard added 18 points and 15 rebounds.
The Rockets did it all against a Timberwolves team missing its head man — a former Houston coach himself — and two of its three top offensive threats in Pekovic and Martin.
Disarray may be a strong word, for now.
But a week or two more of this, and a decade of disappointment will be all but ensured.
"We’ve just got to keep pushing, regardless of whether we feel (the toll) or not," center Ronny Turiaf said.
"That’s what basketball is all about. When you have tough stretches like that, it reveals character. You either cave in or just try to keep your head above water."
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