On December 15, the T-Wolves squeaked out an overtime victory against Dallas, increasing their winning streak to four games. The faces of the franchise–Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love–were on their way back into the rotation.
Rubio dazzled fans in his first game of the season with eight points, nine assists and three steals in just 18 minutes of play. Love didn’t play that night but would be available for their next game, rookie guard Alexey Shved became the most intriguing player on the T-Wolves (like a smaller version of Hedo Turkoglu), Nikola Pekovic wreaked havoc in the paint, Andrei Kirilenko fitted in seamlessly, and the second unit was one of the highest-scoring in the league.
The Timberwolves were 12-9 and seventh in the Western Conference with a winnable game at Orlando two days away. Healthy again, it was perfectly acceptable to see the Wolves make a run at home court advantage in the first round. It also would’ve been the first time Minnesota finished the season above .500 since 2005. If that doesn’t feel forever ago, this will: Michael Olowokandi, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell were on that team.
Well, the Timberwolves blew a 15-point third quarter lead against the Magic and lost. It started a five-week, 17-game stretch that would decide their season beginning with Miami, Oklahoma City and New York and ending with Houston, Atlanta, and Brooklyn. The overall winning percentage of all the teams they would play was .600.
The Timberwolves sputtered. They started the stretch with a record of 12-10 but ended 17-22, losing seven of their last eight games. Their losses weren’t pretty, either, losing by an average of 11.7 points.
The injuries continued to pile up. Kevin Love was gone again, this time until March after another surgery on his hand. Shved and Pekovic, two players who had upped their game, were also out due to nagging ankle and quadriceps injuries, respectfully. A total of six players from their opening day rotation were out. Josh Howard, signed mid-season for depth on the wings after Chase Budinger and Brandon Roy went down, was another casualty. For Howard it was a hyper-extended knee. Even head coach Rick Adelman missed time due to his sick wife and has yet to return.
Beyond the injuries was a frustrating trend where the Timberwolves either built a nice lead in the first half and blew it in the second or were blown out from the start of the game. Minnesota’s last in third quarter points (21.7) and 21st in fourth quarter points (22.9), according to TeamRankings.com, and it’s where teams have cut their deficit. Minnesota held a 14-point halftime lead at Atlanta, a 17-point one versus lottery-bound New Orleans, and led late against New York and Houston only to blow the opportunities in the final couple of minutes. A 5-12 stretch should have been 9-8.
And when the Timberwolves lose a lead it’s tougher than usual for them to get it back. They’re dead last in three point percentage and they don’t score well in transition. According to TeamRankings.com, Minnesota is 23rd in the league at 10.7 fast break points per game. Toronto sits in last place at 9.0 while Houston is first at 18.4.
Minnesota also doesn’t have a consistent crunch time scorer that can step up when the shot clock is winding down. This was most evident versus New York and Houston. Barea’s capable of slicing into the lane and getting a shot off or creating space for a three as he did in a victory against Oklahoma City, but that also comes with a bad side of his streaky scoring and a clear mismatch on the other end of the floor. Brandon Roy was supposed to help in crunch time but his season and career are likely lost, to the dismay of NBA fans everywhere.
On defense, they’re only average at turning teams over. In block and steal rates, they’re 12th and 14th, respectively. Both rates could rise as Rubio and Greg Stiemsma log more minutes, but that means a hit to several offensive numbers.
What Minnesota has been great at is getting to the line, but even that will take a hit as long as Pekovic is sidelined. Kevin Love also has a lot to do with their free throw rates, doubling most teammates with a team-leading 8.3 free throws per 36 minutes. As stated earlier, Love will miss significant time.
This isn’t meant to rip Minnesota to shreds. The last two weeks have especially been brutal, but how far could they really go while being bit by the injury Godzilla? They’re probably doing the best they could through the first half of the season.
And you know what? Their record is better than the Lakers’. Granted, the Lakers have gone through a few injuries of their own but they also happen to boast four future Hall of Famers, have resources Minnesota could only dream of having, and also inherited a dynasty several decades ago. (Sorry about that last one, but I had to.) It really just looks like Minnesota has run out of gas and so have I, falling asleep while watching last night’s game versus Brooklyn.
I see Minnesota finishing 2013 around 30-52, showing signs of hope when most of the team is back in April but continuing their downswing until then. They just can’t play a good full game. Here’s my prediction for Minnesota before the season even started.
The good news is they play Washington (9-31) and Charlotte (10-32) over the weekend. It’s a great opportunity to get some momentum before heading into a six-game home stand that will last 10 days. That includes facing the Clips, Spurs, and Knicks, but at least they won’t have to travel. If the Timberwolves can get on a roll and prove my 30-win prediction wrong, I wouldn’t complain. This season has been impossible to predict accurately with all of the injuries.