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Wolves’ playoff chase: All over but the sighing

Although the Wolves played with admirable energy and execution in their loss to Toronto, they are no longer a viable playoff contender.

Power forward Kevin Love attempting to block a shot by Toronto Raptors power forward Chuck Hayes during the second half of Sunday's game.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The best game played by the Minnesota Timberwolves on their just-completed, crucial four-game home stand was Sunday evening against the Toronto Raptors. It was a rugged game that seesawed in the first half on a pair of huge runs — Toronto going on a 18-0 spree to build a 46-33 lead early in the second quarter only to have the Wolves answer with a 17-2 spurt of its own to regain control at 50-48 with 2:14 remaining in the half.

Alas, it would be Minnesota’s last lead of the night, as the Raptors continually fended off the Wolves during a hard-fought second half en route to a 111-104 triumph.

You can identify a variety of individual reasons for the Wolves’ eventual defeat. Point guards Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea were destroyed on the boards, 18-3, by the Raptors point-guard tandem of Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez. The Wolves’ wing-stopper off the bench, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, was routed by Toronto’s leading scorer, Demar Derozan, before he had a chance to warm up, and wound up minus 18 for the game in only 3:50 minutes played. Toronto made 14 of 24 three-point attempts, enabling the Raptors to overcome 19 turnovers (versus only nine for the Wolves) and a whopping 50-20 disadvantage on points in the paint.

But in the end, what was obvious was that the Raptors were the better team, able to marshal a greater variety of resources to generate the synergy so vital to success in the NBA, be it little-used swingman Steve Novak coming off the bench to sink 5-of-6 treys, or Vasquez using his 8-inch height advantage to dominate Barea. By contrast, the Wolves were thumped despite a typically stellar performance by Kevin Love, who finished with 26 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists.

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I highlight the Toronto game because the Wolves played with admirable energy and executed their sets and schemes at a level that doesn’t warrant scathing criticism. And yet, while the Raptors are playing excellent basketball and currently rank as the third-best team in the Eastern Conference, they are a team the Wolves should and must beat at home to be regarded as a viable playoff contender in the more profoundly talented Western Conference.

Of course the Wolves didn’t beat Toronto and aren’t a viable playoff contender anymore. They are five games out of the final postseason slot in the West with 19 games left to play. To even make it compelling the final month of the season, they would need to finish 14-5 and hope for mediocrity from at least two teams ahead of them in the standings. Given that they haven’t been more than three games above .500 this entire season, and just finished 2-2 against the East on this make-or-break home stand, the playoffs are a pipe dream.

Heightened expectations

Folks who merely peruse the headlines of the sports section might wonder why the Wolves finishing out of the playoff race would qualify as a big deal. After all, this marks a full decade — 10 straight seasons — in which the franchise will have folded up shop after the final game of the regular season.

More than that, casual fans might well ask the die-hards why they aren’t regarding the glass as half full: With 19 games yet to be played, this year’s edition of the Wolves has already won more often than any team in franchise history that didn’t have Kevin Garnett on the roster.

For the die-hards, the answer is easy — this was the payoff season, the campaign in which patience would at long last be rewarded. Owner Glen Taylor invested heavily, re-signing center Nikola Pekovic for more than twice his previous annual salary, bumping swingman Chase Budinger from $900,000 to $5 million per season, and spending $11 million per annum on free agent swingmen Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer. Add that quartet to the core duo of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, coached by future Hall of Famer Rick Adelman, and the Wolves, at long last, were a bona fide playoff contender.

What’s more, for the first time in three years, the Wolves have not been so besieged by injuries this season. Rubio has already set career highs in games and minutes played, and unless Minnesota shuts him down and enters tanking mode, Love will follow suit. Only two starting fives — in Portland and Indiana — have played more minutes together than the Wolves’ quintet of Love, Rubio, Pekovic, Martin and Brewer.

Yes, it was anticipated that Minnesota would sorely miss the defensive acumen and offensive glue of Andrei Kirilenko, and they have. Yet remarkably, even without “AK 47,” Minnesota is allowing fewer points per possession this season, boosting their defensive efficiency from 13th to 11th among the 30 NBA teams.

On offense, it was expected that the added firepower of Martin and Budinger, plus the return of a healthy Love and the maturing of Rubio, would overcome Kirilenko’s absence. And, without question, the Wolves are a more capable and explosive offense this season, boosting their efficiency from 25th to ninth overall, mostly on the back of Love’s incredible productivity.

But what wasn’t expected was Minnesota’s inability to win close games, underlined by their 2-12 record in games decided by four points or less. Nor was it expected that the Wolves would rank among the bottom five teams in three-point shooting percentage. Few observers expected the Pekovic-Love front court tandem to be so ineffective at protecting the rim, or for the bench to be so inconsistent — even toxic — throughout the season.

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Fans expected coach Rick Adelman to wring more wins out of the existing talent on the roster. And they expected a greater focus and sense of teamwork from the players on the court.

Losses such as Sunday night against Toronto are unacceptable, given the stakes that were involved at such a crucial juncture of the season. But they are forgivable because of the caliber of effort and execution involved. What can’t and should not be forgiven by the team’s dwindling loyal fan base were early-season losses to Denver (twice), Cleveland, Boston and Sacramento, or the inexplicable choking that occurred in losses to the Clippers and the Suns.

After the Wolves lost to the Knicks to open the home stand last week and fall to a 30-30 record, I asked Adelman during the postgame press conference if he thought this team simply had the talent of a .500 ball club or was it that they weren’t maximizing their existing resources. Under the circumstances, it was a rude, insinuating question that he answered with grace and honesty.

“I can’t answer that until the season is over. We are a .500 team right now, but we just won six of seven and so that is really hard to answer. Right now I have got to figure that we are not a .500 team. We have got to win games. But also, we are not [way] above all the teams we are playing.” He mentioned the notion that the Wolves may have underestimated the Knicks because of their 21-40 record. “I keep telling our guys that you can’t expect to just come out here and just win because of who you are playing.

“That’s a good question. My feeling is that we are not a .500 team. But as we say all the time, we have got to go out and prove it. That’s the bottom line; you can’t talk about it, you have to go out and do it.”

The Wolves have not done it — they have not delivered on their promise and their expectations. Consequently, it would not be unreasonable to expect major changes, both voluntary and involuntary, in the seasons ahead.

Next time: expectations versus reality among the Wolves’ backcourt personnel.