Injuries weighing heavily on Timberwolves
NEW ORLEANS – It was just a joke, really.
Terry Porter wasn't serious when he pondered the notion of the player-coach before Friday's loss in New Orleans. He compared himself to Bill Russell, after all, the guy who won two championships as a player-coach in Boston in 1968 and 1969. Terry Porter is no Bill Russell, not as this stand-in coach and certainly not in his playing days, either, and he knows it.
But wait. Porter looks fit enough in his warmups. He's a young 49, still muscular, still spry. He's fit enough, for sure. And so you begin wondering, what could he contribute? How well does he keep pace with his players at practice? Would he be good for 10 minutes, eight, even, if strapped?
And that is the crazy state of these Timberwolves, that when a coach makes a joke like that, a sports writer wonders, and wonders only half-jokingly, and thinks to herself that it really might not be a terrible experiment, especially if another wing player went down. But then, well, you know Porter would just tear his ACL or break his hand or sprain who knows what. That's just how this works, in 2012-13, for these Timberwolves.
So as we all laughingly ponder the possible worth of a 49-year-old former All-Star guard on a team that just blew an 18-point lead to the Hornets and lost, 104-92, remember that such an idea is crazy. But then again, anyone who spends even a measure of time around these Timberwolves has a right to be crazy, or at least a justification for it after these three months that have seen three season's worth of injuries. And the Timberwolves need someone, anyone, a warm body or two. Not Porter, obviously, but they need help.
The Timberwolves on Friday were exhausted. They were also sloppy and slow on defense, and they couldn't shoot for anything. They came out to an early 29-14 lead after the first quarter, which the Hornets first chipped away at and then completely blew up in the game's final half when the Timberwolves were unable to react to New Orleans' adjustments. It was ugly and just a bit demoralizing, and it seemed like the same players were on the court for the entire night.
Need a change? Need a break? Tough luck. That's not happening. If you were a starter and played less than 35 minutes, you were lucky.
Fresh from his shower after the game, guard Luke Ridnour grabbed a box score and stood by his locker, shaking his head. He didn't stop as his eyes traveled down the page, past the four inactives on his team's roster – back spasms; illness; hyperextended right knee; fractured metacarpal, right hand. Past 44.9 percent shooting and 22.2 percent from 3-point range. Past the Hornets' 52.4 percent shooting mark. Past the full 13 players who logged minutes for New Orleans, when 13 seems like a luxurious extravagance.
But despite that utter disdain for the piece of paper and what it captured, Ridnour was unflinching in his belief that his team would be just fine, that it played hard, that it doesn't need help, not even after the past two games and a tough stretch to come.
"We've just got to find a way to keep scoring and keep playing together, and we'll be alright," Ridnour said.
Porter's sentiment was similar, as was Derrick Williams'. We're fine. We're trying. We're tired, but it's not an excuse. We fight hard.
Oh, the platitudes of a tired team that was so recently so talented.
"We've just got to keep playing," Williams said. "I think we're playing hard. I think everybody is. With nine guys, it's tough, but nobody can say we're not playing hard out there. Everybody's giving it their all."
But to keep playing, at least like this, is to run the team into the ground, and dealing with a situation like the nine-man Timberwolves' is difficult. It's to be treated gently, with kid gloves, because it's so easy to insinuate that these nine aren't doing enough. And they are. They're playing like just that, 60 percent of an NBA team, when they need to be a whole one. And so to say that they need help is unquestionably true. To say it, though, is not an insult or a slight on the nine men who made New Orleans Arena's visitors locker room seem so spacious on Friday. It's not to say that they're not doing enough, or not fighting, or playing like a pack of whining wimps, which is all so far from the truth.
Friday night was a wakeup call. The Timberwolves, with Kevin Love, Chase Budinger, J.J. Barea, Brandon Roy and Malcolm Lee on top of this current crew were talented, with a good shot at the playoffs. But that roster isn't going to appear, not ever again this season, and change needs to come. As much as the coaches like to say that no one's coming over the mountain, someone needs to, and soon, now that the smoke and mirrors have lost their power to transform and there's a Kevin Love-sized hole in the middle of the lineup.
Admitting that some help (and some health) would be appreciated isn't an excuse. It's a nod to reality, and when the Timberwolves' current reality involves nearly 40 minutes per night apiece from two players (Andrei Kirilenko and Ridnour) old enough to reminisce about the Vancouver Grizzlies and Rick Adelman's teams in Sacramento, reality is not perfect. When reality is nine healthy players, Dante Cunningham starting at power forward and 2.5 healthy guards, reality is a disaster. When reality is a 16-17 record on Jan. 11, heading into the stretch when the Timberwolves need to create a cushion between themselves and .500, reality is absurdly frustrating.
And so yes, this ragtag bunch is fighting. It's a far cry from last year's end-of-season spectacle. But the Timberwolves have been talking for too long about playing through this, about continuing to fight, about doing the best with what they have. If this team wants to play past April 17, something needs to give.
"Oh, we could use somebody," Porter said after the game Friday. "But it is what it is. That's what happens in this league. Unfortunately, injuries are part of it. We've just got to lean on each other some more."
Keep leaning this hard, and someone's bound to buckle.
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