Wolves officially eliminated from postseason
MINNEAPOLIS — Kevin Love was stepping off an airplane. Ricky Rubio was hidden away somewhere in the bowels of the Target Center. On any other night, that's disconcerting. But on Thursday, it seemed fitting.
They didn't deserve to be forced to deal with it, the harsh reality that the Minnesota Timberwolves have been keeping at bay for weeks. On Thursday, mathematics validated what the Timberwolves have suspected for weeks: This team will not be playing past its final regular-season game on April 26.
And yes, it's still a team, with every man as responsible as another. But if one had to pick two players to be exempt from living out that dull-but-expected pain of elimination first-hand, it would have to be Love and Rubio. They didn't cause this, the full-scale meltdown of March and April. Both, especially Love, were the reason it even could be called a letdown, not just another failed season.
With the Timberwolves' 95-82 loss to the Clippers, Minnesota fell to eight games out of the eighth playoff spot, a deficit that's mathematically impossible for it to overcome. But after eight straight losses, eight straight games played with an utter lack of energy and urgency, elimination hardly comes as a surprise. And what team more fitting to eliminate them than the postseason-bound Clippers, whom Minnesota managed to beat three times already this season?
It was as if to say: You thought you were contenders. You might actually have been contenders. And now, resoundingly, you're not.
But it was as disappointing as it had been expected for the past few weeks. This was a team with big hopes before the season started, hopes of playoffs and a winning record that seemed more and more reasonable with each passing game. Chemistry was improving, and young players were learning what it felt like to win. As recently as early March, coach Rick Adelman said that the team was exceeding his expectations. That's the kind of thing that's not admitted lightly, a statement that takes some security in a team and its staying power.
Adelman spoke too soon, and he knows it.
"As a coach, I took the first 40-something games and saw the progress we'd made, and now I'm seeing it go the other direction quickly," Adelman said Thursday.
In all his years of coaching, Adelman said he hasn't seen anything like this year's collapse. Not the injuries, not their timing, not the depth that's failed to emerge as roles shifted and opened. Absent the setbacks he couldn't control, the coach said he was taken aback by the speed at which the team slipped.
Since Ricky Rubio's season-ending ACL tear on March 9, the Timberwolves have fallen from a 21-19 record to 25-35, losing 16 of 20 games. But even that record and Thursday's elimination don't change how the team will approach the season's final six games.
"We're not going to let up on them as a coaching staff," Adelman said Monday. "We did some things differently today to try to get their attention. . . . I guess I'm surprised that we had some setbacks and everything; now suddenly it's so hard to get anything going."
The Timberwolves became the 10th team to be eliminated on Thursday; New Orleans, Sacramento, New Jersey, Toronto, Washington, Cleveland, Detroit, Golden State and Charlotte already had been eliminated. But the difference between those teams and the Timberwolves is that none really ever had a playoff shot. None were on the cusp in the way the Timberwolves were, and none lost those chances with such an aggravating mix of complicity and factors beyond its control.
In a way, being eliminated isn't the biggest letdown. What's worse is the series of smaller disappointments, the losses that easily could have been avoided.
"It's the little letdowns," Love said Monday. "It's hard to be out there and see that there is no energy. We've put so much time and effort into the season that it's tough. It's saddening to me."
Another of those little letdowns came in the form of Clippers big man JaVale McGee's elbow to Love's head on Wednesday, which sidelined the power forward indefinitely with a concussion. Elimination may be the only thing that's made his injury easier to stomach, because regardless of record, Love was going to be there, precisely in the path of that errant limb. Winner or loser, he would be concussed, and if the Timberwolves were in the midst of a playoff race, it would have hurt worse.
"The great thing is we're just playing for pride now instead of playing for a position," Anthony Tolliver said. "That's a good thing at this position because to lose him in a playoff race would be really detrimental. But now it's just an opportunity for some of us guys that haven't gotten a lot of opportunity all year."
Adelman said he feels like the team isn't mentally committed to the season anymore, and Martell Webster agreed that players are beaten up and slow. Webster added that it's in moments like this that a team's true character shows, and Adelman has become all too aware of that as he's begun to look toward next season and evaluate the team in recent weeks.
Last Saturday in New Orleans, Adelman said he's already begun to think about next year, to decide where the team did well and where it needs to improve. That's not something the coach of a playoff-bound team considers in earnest, and Adelman is especially concerned about how his team plays through adversity. Elimination is just another form of adversity, and it might be yet another blow to the team's will to win. But it can't be.
"I've been around this game a long time, and teams that win, teams that have a chance to win and players that are winners respond to adversity," Adelman said. "They don't give into it. And that's what we're trying to get these guys to do."
So with six games left before the full-fledged effort to improve in 2012-13 begins, the Timberwolves need to set a precedent. The injuries are still there, and the opponents will be tough, but the team needs to feel like it's playing for something. And really, it is. It's playing for its first win in April since 2009, for a measure of confidence to carry over into the offseason.
Adelman is concerned, concerned "big time," he said. And rightfully so — it must be difficult for a coach who knows he can win to watch a team be so unable to respond to the staff's advice. But now, the pressure's off, every last lingering bit of it. The Timberwolves are playing just for themselves, and only pride will push them to end the season on a positive note.
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