No team wants to call a loss expected. No player wants to make excuses or accept it, but, on Wednesday night, the Timberwolves had no other choice.
With Kevin Love serving the second and final game of his suspension, the Timberwolves were sluggish all night, falling 85-80 to the Grizzlies in their second loss to Memphis this season. It wasn’t a performance to be proud of, but the loss shouldn’t take on any more significance than simply being an off night for the young team.
Although the Timberwolves went into Wednesday with a 6-4 road record, the odds were stacked against them. Memphis had won the team’s past five games – make that six, now – and after expending a lot of energy on Tuesday to make up for Love’s absence, the team looked exhausted at points.
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“With Kevin out, that’s tough for their team,” Memphis forward Rudy Gay said. “Kevin’s a big part of their team, and we’re going to take advantage of that.”
It was one of those losses that seemed to loom as early as the first quarter, which ended with a 26-21 Memphis lead. The Timberwolves weren’t ahead at any point past the beginning of the first quarter, and though they outscored Memphis 26-19 in the fourth, the late offensive burst wasn’t enough.
“We’ve got to execute better,” Timberwolves assistant coach Jack Sikma said at halftime. “We’re giving in a little bit and letting them dictate some things to us on how they’re playing us defensively.”
That didn’t change in the second half, though the Timberwolves did capitalize on a late scoring burst from its bench. The starters lagged throughout the game; Ricky Rubio finished the night with just one assist, a seemingly unheard of total for the rookie, and he and Luke Ridnour combined for just six points. Derrick Williams started the game strong, just as he did on Tuesday against Sacramento, but unlike the previous night, he wasn’t able to pick up his performance at the end.
Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman has always been hesitant to make wholesale lineup changes. It takes a lot to warrant the coach making large-scale moves, but on Wednesday night, the starters’ lethargy was enough to spur Adelman to action. He started the fourth quarter by benching all five of his starters, putting Wayne Ellington, Anthony Randolph, J.J. Barea, Anthony Tolliver and Michael Beasley on the court. With the game in their hands, Barea and Beasley led the bench players to close an eight-point gap to five, but even their fresh legs weren’t enough to get the come-from-behind win.
“Fourth quarter, our guys, the guys that were out there, played harder, but even thought it’s back to back, we’ve got to come out with a lot more energy,” Adelman said. “I was just trying to find something to give us a lift and give those guys a chance to see if we could cut into it at that point.”
Barea was the lone bright spot in the Timberwolves’ offense, which shot just 39 percent from the field. The point guard finished the night with 17 points and 6 assists, leading the team in both categories. Adelman said that Barea’s aggressive play was a sign that he’s getting into better shape after his injury, and the more he plays, the better that performance can be.
Without Love, there was no consistent shooter on the court for much of Wednesday night’s game. That in part accounted for Rubio’s lack of assists, but the rookie looked tired throughout his 28 minutes on the court.
“They did a good job of closing in on him,” Adelman said. “But when your team shoots 39 percent, there’s not going to be a whole lot of assists out there.”
As discouraging as the loss was to the Timberwolves, they must feel like they’re in a better place than they were on Tuesday night. The back-to-back is over, and they get to return to Minneapolis for two games this weekend. And, most importantly, they get their leader back when they face Dallas on Friday. With Love, the Timberwolves have their best shot, but they also have little use for excuses. If Wednesday’s loss was close to a free pass, a foregone conclusion, then a win Friday should be of paramount importance.
Just minutes after the buzzer in Memphis, Love tweeted: “Short term memory. Focused on Friday.” That’s probably the best way to think about the loss, but Love would do well to reflect on what it felt like to watch his team fall behind and lose on television. If Love ever needed to be reminded of how much he matters to the Timberwolves, Wednesday’s game should do just that.