Pain never goes away for Timberwolves

LOS ANGELES – It’s time to play a mind game – a borderline sick one, if you’re a Minnesota sports fan.

Let’s say the predictions were right, that the Timberwolves were to finish the 2012-13 season with 45 wins. That would have put them at eight games over .500 on the season, perhaps six or seven games over right now, as February turns to March. It would have put them on par with, say, the Warriors, who currently sit at 33-25.

The Warriors have had injuries, most notably to center Andrew Bogut, who’s yet to play this season beyond just a handful of games. Now, let’s assume Bogut is Golden State’s best player; Steph Curry and David Lee are giving him a run for his money in that category, but we’ll assume it nonetheless. He’s roughly the equivalent of a Kevin Love, both in his talent and the fact that his few games won’t have any say on his team’s season.

So Bogut is out. Now, let’s assume the Warriors lost their star point guard, Curry, until mid-December, that he didn’t return to form until February. Let’s assume that their starting shooting guard, Klay Thompson, played five games before being sidelined for the remainder of the season, that their starting small forward, Harrison Barnes, has been plagued by nagging injuries of late. Let’s also give a few such problems to another big man – say, Lee – costing him 20 or so games on the year. Say their sixth man, Carl Landry, is out as well, sidelined after just six games and with no return projected until late March, and then axe another bench player, perhaps Draymond Green, for the year, too.

Looks kind of sadistic, right, on paper? But that, in a rough parallel, is what has happened to the Timberwolves this year, and you have to know if all that had shaken out in Golden State, falling to a six seed would be the least of coach Mark Jackson’s worries right now. So for anyone out there still bemoaning the Timberwolves’ lack of a fleeting chance at the playoffs, remember that. It’s easier to see it objectively, the absolutely crippling power of a few hurt players, when it isn’t your team all splayed out and broken on the page in front of you.

On Thursday night in Los Angeles, the hits just kept coming. A day before, small forward Andrei Kirilenko had seemed skeptical that he’d be able to play at all in the near future with his calf strain, and he limped into the locker room before his team’s game against the Lakers. Then, in the first quarter of the eventual 116-94 loss, center Nikola Pekovic left with an abdominal strain, and though the team has not yet provided any further details on his situation, it’s not unreasonable to guess that he’ll miss a few games. And so it’ll be Dante Cunningham and Derrick Williams trading off at small forward, Greg Stiemsma likely starting at center with Chris Johnson backing him up – a whole lot of role players inheriting roles a whole lot bigger than they should be.

And so of course there will be criticism, more so than otherwise. Of course coach Rick Adelman might harp a bit more on Williams, might wish that Alexey Shved could hit those game-winning shots, might bemoan the small and tiny statures, respectively, of Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea. He’ll be forced to stomach mistakes from Mickael Gelabale and Chris Johnson, both signed for the season off 10-day contracts and sure to see more minutes with so many injuries around them.

It’s not like everyone will just watch these bench players start and admire how admirably they’re doing when compared to what they should be doing. They’re going to be held to the same standards as Love, as Kirilenko, as Pekovic or Chase Budinger, fair or unfair. They’re not likely to live up to those standards, not all the time, at least, and so Adelman will be forced to critique things he should never have to critique, to wish players could do things they’re not mature enough or tall enough or strong enough to do. You have to wish they’d do it, to hope there’s some untapped potential or crazy drive lurking beneath the surface, but too many times, that’s not the case, and supporting casts are supporting casts for a reason.

That, in a way, is why these recent minor injuries – Pekovic’s abdomen, Kirilenko’s calf and thigh – are almost more disruptive than the bigger ones early in the season at this point. The Timberwolves know who they are without Love, Budinger, Brandon Roy, even without Malcolm Lee and his role, however minor. When a team knows a player will be out for the majority or entirety of a season, it adjusts accordingly, and roles solidify. But when players are in and out, hurt and better and then suddenly hurt again – that’s when things get dicey. That’s when Williams doesn’t know which forward position to play, when Cunningham is off the bench, and then a starter, and then back again. That’s when Alexey Shved gets tired and maybe even a bit overwhelmed, a rookie out of Russia being asked to take game-winning shots. Hardly anyone knows what his role is, not now, and even more so if and when Pekovic sits in Portland.

If this season is a team-building exercise for the Timberwolves, it’s a cruel one, and the further down the rabbit hole this whole thing gets, the more I have to wonder if Kirilenko wasn’t right on Wednesday when he said that if he were in Russia, he’d be in church lighting candles to attempt to remedy the mess.

Seriously. If I heard the entire team stopped at a church on their way to the Rose Garden Saturday, I wouldn’t think twice about it. I might not even laugh.

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