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Wolves will enter March with flickering hopes — or flickering out?

Tuesday’s comeback victory over Phoenix will eventually be viewed as either an important harbinger or a cruel tease at this critical phase of the season.

Shabazz Muhammad, left, shown during the Timberwolves' game versus the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 8.
Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

For fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Tuesday night’s rousing comeback victory over the Phoenix Suns in the desert will eventually be viewed as either an important harbinger or a cruel tease at this relatively late and critical phase of the 2013-14 season.

The Wolves followed form on the first two contests of their vital five-game road trip, beating a lousy Utah team for the third straight occasion and then executing one of their patented fourth-quarter folds in a loss to a Portland squad more than 10 games ahead of them in the standings. To even pretend to be a playoff contender at this stage, they needed (and still need) to sweep the final three roads games and head home above .500, facing a soft part of their schedule. Furthermore, the Suns are holding on to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, adding more significance to their head-to-head matchup.

Thus, the win was necessary, but the manner in which it was achieved was a tonic for a team and a fan base that needed to jolt the doldrums at least temporarily out of their reality.

Eyes on the real prize

Tuesday night is most memorable as the coming-out party for Wolves rookie Shabazz Muhammad, the seldom-used top draft pick who set career highs in minutes and points and was a genuine catalyst in securing the victory. During the Wolves television broadcast, announcers Dave Benz and Jim Petersen anointed Muhammad as the team’s MVP for the game and almost all the post-game recaps late Tuesday and into Wednesday focused on the rookie’s performance.

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I get it: In a season where the won-lost record has been relentlessly and discouragingly mundane and little hope has been supplied by either Muhammad or Minnesota’s other first-round pick, center Gorgui Dieng, the temptation to go overboard on “Bazzy” is pretty near irresistible — and you best believe I’m going to add my two cents to the hoopla in just a minute.

But the MVP in Phoenix — and the MVP in the entire NBA since the All Star break — has been Kevin Love, a superstar who happens to be playing the best basketball of his six-year career.

With both Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic out with injuries, opponents approach every Wolves game dedicated to stopping Love — not a bad strategy when the team’s second-most prolific scorer in the month of February has been Corey Brewer. Yet Love continues to prove that his skill set is too vast and versatile to be defended effectively.

Here are his averages for the nine games he played in February, all of them without Pekovic and six of them without Martin: 34 points, 14.1 rebounds and 4 assists per game.

In response to the all-out efforts to throttle him, Love’s points were compiled with clinical efficiency. In those nine games, he attempted an average of more than seven three-pointers per game and made 41.5 percent of them. He got to the foul line more than nine times per game, and made 84.8 percent of his free throws. His true shooting percentage for February was 64.2. With any justice, he will be named the Western Conference Player of the Month in the next few days.

But it is more than raw numbers. Coming out of an All Star break that was rife with distracting, anonymous gossip and smug assumptions about his future plans, Love not only kept his concentration but channeled his intensity more productively. The jawboning with officials and opponents has diminished even as the physicality has increased because of the move over to center in the absence of first Pekovic and then Ronny Turiaf due to injury. He has averaged 35.8 points in 36 minutes since the break, but the true shooting percentage is 68.8 and the dimes are up to five per game — he is involving his grossly inferior teammates as much as possible on offense. He has dished more than five assists per game seven times since Jan. 18 and the Wolves have won every time (the asterisk here is that three of those games were against Utah).

But most of all, Love’s recent improvement has occurred at the defensive end. Coach Rick Adelman doesn’t like to leave him at center too long because of the beating it exacts on his relatively short body, but Love seems more comfortable at both on-ball and team defense here.

Yes, he can be overwhelmed by opposing big men posting him up, and has difficulty going out to defend the midrange jumper on the pick-and-roll. But his lack of peripheral vision on baseline cuts is less obvious and injurious, and his diligence in trying to protect the rim is much more consistent.

Love’s defense was especially admirable, and valiant, in the third quarter against Phoenix on Tuesday. With just 2:34 gone in the quarter, Dante Cunningham picked up his third and fourth fouls, forcing him to the bench. Cunningham and Love have teamed for a marked upgrade in interior defense since Pekovic’s injury, in large part because Cunningham excels at the sort of back-fills and baseline help that Love has difficulty providing for Pek when Love is the power forward. The pair are now +13.9 points per 100 possessions together, Love’s highest total with any teammate.

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But now Love was forced to face Phoenix’s rugged front line alongside Robbie Hummel, woefully overmatched at the power forward and later replaced by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. But Love — the superstar carrying an enormous load at the other end of the court — effectively scrapped with first Miles Plumlee and then Marcus Morris while also clashing with the hard-driving Goran Dragic on dribble penetration.

The Wolves were minus-four points for the third period, but it could have been much worse without Love’s effort. His play rebutted the frequent criticism that he favors rebounding position at the expense of not contesting shots: The Suns outrebounded Minnesota 15-6, including 7-6 on the Wolves’ defensive glass, but shot only 9-for-25 (36 percent) for the period.

When it was over, Love’s line was 33 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists, and two blocks. The Wolves were plus-16 in the 39 minutes he played and minus-10 in the nine minutes he sat. There should have been no doubt who was the MVP.

The emergence of Bazzy

If you follow the Wolves, you have read and heard quite a bit about Muhammad’s breakout performance by now. Consequently, I’ll try and be concise for a change.

The revelation for me is that Muhammad thrives playing a grimy style with a chip on his shoulder. You could see the attitude when he reached out and forcefully blocked an underhanded layup by an opponent long after the whistle had been blown. He also came right at Phoenix’s rough-and-tumbler swingman P.J. Tucker after Tucker roughly wrenched the ball away after Muhammad had tried to draw a jump-ball call by sharing possession.

This rookie impertinence is not a bad thing on the Wolves’ current roster. Earlier this year, President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders told me that he wanted to see more aggressive pushback from his players when opponents got physical. Not coincidentally, whatever aspersions you want to cast on Saunders’ two draft picks, both Muhammad and Dieng are physical players who don’t back down.

Bazzy isn’t a punk who confines the pushback to post-whistle contretemps or cheap shots either. When he found himself on a switch covering 6-11 power forward Channing Frye on the low post, he jousted with Frye tenaciously enough to discourage the outlet pass (and although whistled for the off-ball foul, prevented an easy basket and forced Phoenix to re-set its offense).

More than that, Muhammad is most comfortable in the scrum. The announcers were saying he “had a knack” for garnering so many rebounds in both the Phoenix game and the Portland contest before then, but I saw more raw, reactive desire and grit than prior planning on how to establish inside position of judging the angle of the caroms off the glass and the rim.

Similarly, contact seems to be Bazzy’s friend on offense. His now-trademark spin and bank-shot from the left low post is delivered more confidently when he can feel the defender on his hip, and he seems to be one of those players who is energized by physical competition.

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Critics of Adelman will inevitably demand to know why Muhammad was deprived of playing time for so long. He didn’t log even 10 minutes in a game until Feb. 8, and only eclipsed 20 minutes in the past two contests. It should also be noted that for many, this isn’t second-guessing — there has been a hardy throng clamoring for more Muhammad on the court for months now.

I’m not the best person to answer that question. First of all, as I’ve frequently stated, I know next to nothing about college hoops and wait for a rookie’s NBA performance before forming an opinion. In this case, the sample size made conclusions dicey. Reporters are only allowed to view practice at the very end, and on the occasions I’ve attended, Muhammad is relentlessly, but obviously not fruitfully, working on his outside jumper, which has a habit of changing mechanics slightly and not going into the hoop very often.

That, coupled, with the lack of playing time, led me to believe Muhammad was not ready for prime time. And while he has demonstrated that there clearly are situations where he can be a boon to this ball club, I won’t rip Adelman until Muhammad provides more evidence that he can maintain his virtues after scouts have fattened their files on his tendencies.

To be clear, whether Muhammad always possessed the NBA-level skills that let him flourish versus Phoenix or whether he developed those skills through hard work until he could flourish (likely a combination of the two), he is ready now to be a permanent part of the rotation until proven otherwise.

Adelman’s handling of the rookie is not a moot point — stealing minutes from Alexey Shved was not a high bar, and the coach should have at least experimented with Muhammad instead of Shved sooner than he did.

But Adelman has at least belatedly recognized how valuable Muhammad may be with both Martin and Pekovic on the sidelines. Bazzy is listed as a shooting guard, but the role he really replaced against Phoenix was Pekovic’s. Many of the plays run for Muhammad, including three Love assists to the rookie, were the sort of high-low action the Wolves deploy for Pek on the left block and flashing down in front of the rim. In addition, Muhammad’s prominence on the offensive glass is a duty most commonly assumed by Pek.

Obviously this doesn’t carry over to defensive assignments — Bazzy is not going to guard centers and power forwards — but it will be interesting to see where he can match up effectively. His emergence gives the Wolves and Adelman more options for combinations among their swingmen, including Brewer, Martin, Chase Budinger and Mbah a Moute (Shved should be in Bazzy’s old seat stuck to the bench). And it gives Minnesota a little more hope that Love perceives future growth on the roster and is thus more enticed to stick around.

Adelman’s Rubio bias

At a time of the season where every win and loss becomes magnified in the playoff race, the short leash Rick Adelman provides for his point guard Ricky Rubio is becoming more aggravating with each succeeding — and unsuccessful — yank.

Sunday night’s loss in Portland repeated a tiresome pattern. Rubio started the game very well, choreographing a humming offense. He ran into more difficulty later, contributing to a late second-quarter surge by the Blazers after J.J. Barea had exploded for 15 points in an 11-minute stint earlier in the half (a spree that was not part of the usual pattern). Rubio and the offense were bogged down a bit in the third quarter, although he did contribute the team’s only four assists in the period.

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Rubio sat with 2:10 left to play in the third quarter and the Wolves leading by a point. He did not return and the Wolves lost by 11. Included in that interim was a stretch where Barea played 10:33 and the team was minus-16.

Thus far this season, Rubio, a supposed future cornerstone of the franchise, the team’s best on-ball perimeter defender and most gifted passer, has played 273 minutes in the fourth quarter, during which time the Wolves are a combined minus-16. Barea, a supposed sparkplug off the bench who is most comfortable dominating the ball and calling his own number, whose contract is set to expire at the end of next season and won’t be renewed, and who has precious little trade value, has played 409 fourth quarter minutes, during which time the Wolves are a combined minus 112.

Now some of those fourth-quarter numbers are skewed by Barea playing with the second unit during garbage time. But some of them have occurred over the many times when Adelman has opted for Barea over Rubio at the point, a strategy that by my recollection has not once this season clearly figured in a Wolves victory. 

There are some solid reasons for Adelman not to trust Rubio at crunch time. Rubio’s wretched shooting allows teams to slough off him. Rubio’s willingness to take the occasional gamble grates on a coach who enjoys competent ball-handling and intelligent circumstantial decision-making.

But there is increasing evidence that Rubio has especially gotten under Adelman’s skin, to the detriment of the coach’s own decision-making. To choose an example, innocuous on its own but more troubling in context, Adelman bemoaned Rubio revealing that he had been working with a shot coach over the All Star break. Why take the time to indulge in such petty criticism, especially with respect to something that involves Rubio trying to address a weakness?

During games, Adelman generally reacts more vociferously and with annoyance to Rubio’s mistakes than to those by other members of the Wolves. The latest was in the final seconds of the Phoenix game, when Rubio committed a stupid foul that got Gerald Green to the free throw line to add points for the Suns without taking any time off the clock. Dumb play. But Adelman went into a full stomp and rant reminiscent of the days of Randy Wittman.

The ironic thing is, Barea commits more stupid and selfish plays than any member of the Timberwolves — on a per-minute basis, it isn’t even close — yet Adelman rarely reacts to such transgressions. It is a double-standard that does no favors to the coach’s justifiably exalted reputation.