Wolves stunned into silence after setback
MINNEAPOLIS – The worse the loss, the more he stares at the carpet. The bigger the disappointment, the closer his voice drops to a mere whisper.
On Wednesday night, Kevin Love never once looked up. In the moments after the most disappointing Timberwolves' loss of the season, he was barely audible. His was the wavering voice of frustration, a far cry from the confidence of an elite player that Love usually exudes. But there was no place for that confidence, not in a blown 20-point lead and a 97-94 loss to Golden State, one of the NBA's worst teams.
Both Rick Adelman and Love said that it might have been the worst game of the season, but that's something of an overstatement. The worst games came when the playoff shot was still a reality. They don't come now, when the postseason has become virtually out of reach. Now, it's just disappointing, demoralizing, but it hurts just as badly as it did when playoffs were a part of the conversation.
The Timberwolves should have won this game. There really are no excuses. They had a 20-point lead with 1:53 remaining in the second quarter, two injured players healthy and back in the starting lineup and – this might be the least excusable – they were playing against a team that had lost 11 of its last 13. Those should seem like pretty good odds, but as Love said, the odds are no longer working in the Timberwolves' favor.
"That was a game we could have easily turned in our favor, even when they went on their run," Love said. "That's on us."
This was beyond a letdown. A letdown is when a team loses a few of its best players to injuries. A letdown is no one's fault, bad luck. A letdown is the pit in a player's stomach when he knows he can't control what's happening around him. But everything on Wednesday came down to control, and the Timberwolves had it for the early part of the game. It was theirs to handle, theirs to lose.
Wednesday night was a failure.
The excuses are fading. They've been used before, the injuries, the fatigue, the grueling schedule. Everyone's heard it. Everyone's complained about it. Aches and limps and all too frequent travel have enmeshed themselves into the reality of the NBA this season, and it's hard to blame losses on them at this point. Plus, Golden State played last night; Minnesota had the day off. "Where's their fatigue?" Adelman asked postgame, more a taunt than a question.
Injuries don't cause a lack of effort. Neither does fatigue, and effort was at the core of Wednesday's loss. After giving up just 39 points to the Warriors in the game's first half, the Timberwolves allowed them 38 in the third quarter, and that alone was enough to do them in.
"We should play hard all the way to the end of the first half," Pekovic said. "And then you come in the third quarter, and you play hard the first five minutes. If you got a lead by 20 points, the teams', they can never come back. Never. But if you give up and they see that they got a chance, they get some shots, score some shots, suddenly a 20-point game… suddenly it's 12."
He's as insightful as he is blunt.
But how does that happen? Can a team that's lost seven of its last nine really assume that a 20-point lead before halftime guarantees a win? There's no way. But the other side of that question is this: if the Timberwolves didn't count on the win, then this team's fundamentals, its ability to play winning basketball, have gone horribly awry. Neither answers looks good.
"It's inexcusable," Adelman said. "I don't understand what was going through our minds, especially in the situation we're in. If we're not tougher mentally than that, we're going to have a hard time. A hard time."
The most unsettling thing about a loss like Wednesday's is the questions it leaves behind, questions of defense and failed execution and how, how, how the team could mentally give up like it did. And for a coach who's done everything he can to remedy a faltering defense in recent games, who's talked about it and demonstrated it, knowing what to do next must be difficult. When the first thing Adelman takes away from a loss is that he doesn't know what happened – "That one's hard to figure out," was the first thing he said in the postgame press conference – it's disconcerting at best.
Early in the season, the Timberwolves built their identity on comebacks, on staying in games they perhaps shouldn't have been able to. They became known for defense, of all things, for energy and exceeding expectations. But March and now early April have rewritten all that, and though some failures and downturns have clear causes and excuses, there's no way to justify a full-scale meltdown like Wednesday's.
"It shouldn't have come to that," Love said.
But the Timberwolves let it. They let the Warriors beat them to nearly every loose ball, let them take complete control of the game. And once the pain of this loss fades, Minnesota will be left with accountability. This was theirs to lose, and they did. That accountability can gnaw at them. It can scream how complicit they are in their own fate, but it might also serve as a reminder that a team who can surge to a 20-point lead should also find it somewhere within itself to maintain it.
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