Wolves must put Rubio's injury behind them
What on Friday morning looked like a challenging, two-week road trip has become something more, a chance for the Timberwolves to prove themselves under the most adversity the young team has yet faced.
When Minnesota takes the court in Phoenix on Monday for the first of seven consecutive road games, it will be somewhat of a beginning. It's game 43 of the season. It should be arbitrary, just another Monday night. But it's not.
It will be the first game after the shock of Ricky Rubio's season-ending ACL injury fully sank in, the first since panic subsided in favor of resignation or determination. And really, that's the choice this team has to make: Will it resign itself to its recent struggles, or will it be focused and determined enough to finish what it started and remain a playoff threat?
"I hate to put more pressure on us, but this is make it or break it time," Kevin Love said.
It's an injury that stings, seeing the promising rookie who's become the symbol of this team's resurgence fall helpless on the court, clutching his knee and waving for help. But it's over. It happened, and it's time to move on.
The injury set the tone for the end of the team's four-game home stand, a stretch that on Thursday seemed as if it could end with a 4-0 Timberwolves record. Instead, the team fell to New Orleans, 95-89, on Saturday after losing to the Lakers in the game that will be remembered most for The Injury. But give them a break. Even in this season when every game seems to matter more than the last, give the Timberwolves that loss. They were hurting. Now, though, the hurt needs to stop.
Rubio's injury couldn't have come at a worse time, as the Timberwolves will begin a seven-game, two-week road trip -- tied for the longest in franchise history -- on Monday night. Before Rubio's injury, this stretch was a test. Now, it's become the ultimate chance to make a statement that no, this team isn't dead yet.
"We cannot feel sorry for ourselves," Love said. "We have to accept and move on."
After defeating Portland on Wednesday, the Timberwolves were at their most energetic and promising. A winning record in the home stand seemed likely, and coach Rick Adelman was already differentiating his team from Portland, who had struggled at home before setting out on a similarly long road trip that began in Minnesota.
"They had those home games, and they let them get away," Adelman said of the Trail Blazers. "It kind of put them behind the eight-ball going into the seven-game trip. . . . We're kind of in the same position. If we win these games at home, it gives you a little bit of cushion starting that seven-game trip."
The cushion is smaller now, after the team went just 2-2 in Minnesota last week. That puts them at .500 overall on the season, 12-12 at home and 9-9 on the road. The Timberwolves are a team that might not need that road cushion as much, but it's still tougher to win on the road regardless of what a record says.
Minnesota will face Phoenix, Utah, the Lakers, Sacramento, Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City between Monday and March 23. Three of those teams -- the Thunder, Spurs and Lakers -- boast winning records, and they're the three best teams in the Western Conference. The other four dwell among the conference's cellar and on paper should be manageable wins for even the shorthanded Minnesota team. But a lot rests on the team's mentality and resilience, if it can overcome its dearth of point guards and the hole that Rubio leaves in the lineup. It will depend on conserving energy and somehow clinging to the attitude that lingered in the locker room last week, when Derrick Williams confessed that it felt like the team hadn't lost in "so long."
"If we're going to maintain and be near (the playoffs), we're going to have to win on the road," Adelman said. "It makes no difference who we have, we have to win on the road and the first game is Phoenix. We have to respond."
Rubio's injury capped a week that saw perhaps the highest high and the lowest low of the Timberwolves' season. On Wednesday, the team moved into the eighth Western Conference playoff spot, and that altered its outlook and expectations. It made the injury seem all the worse, the death of a dream that had become real not even 48 hours earlier.
So perhaps the best way to look at the upcoming road trip is to look back to before those two home wins and that gut-wrenching injury, back to when the team's record sat at 19-19. Back then, the goal for the big road trip was one that even now seems manageable, and maybe it's best to revert to that mindset.
"We want to at least go .500 on the road," Love said on March 5. "They say if you do that, you can make the playoffs."
That not out of the realm of possibility if the team can find its rhythm with a re-defined, larger lineup. Players like Martell Webster and Wayne Ellington will have to step up, and Luke Ridnour, who's averaging 14.0 points and 5.0 assists in March, will have to continue his hot streak.
It's not a lot to ask from a bench that had to know its expectations would be raised on a long, busy road trip. Assistant coach Terry Porter said before Rubio's injury how important the bench would be as the starters tired down the stretch on the road, and that point is even truer now.
But the team's mentality is more important than any player's statistics. There's no way to quantify feelings and sentiment, but the Timberwolves have been especially susceptible to the power of mood and feelings this season. These players aren't going to forget what happened on Friday, not for a minute. But if they can somehow get past it while simultaneously winning on the road, they'll have proven they really are legitimate contenders in the West.
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