LOS ANGELES -- Locker rooms by their nature are noisy places where shouting is the preferred mode of communication. But following the Minnesota Timberwolves’ gut-wrenching 120-116 overtime loss to the Clippers on Sunday night, the only sounds were ambient noise -- showers running, the zipping of duffel bags, aerosol deodorant being sprayed.
In the far corner, Kevin Love stewed, feet soaking in an ice bath, eyes staring into middle distance. Love scored 45 points, grabbed 19 rebounds and dished out six assists but witnessed the Timberwolves implode repeatedly in one of the NBA season’s most bizarre half-hours of basketball.
“We blew it,” he said. “Blew the game. I don’t know how else to say it. We blew the game.”
Love was devastated, and he had plenty of fodder. The Wolves led by five with 29.4 seconds remaining in regulation, then by two with possession of the ball and only 13.2 seconds on the clock. But Kevin Martin coughed up the ball in the backcourt, which yielded a game-tying layup by Jamal Crawford.
Normally one of the most measured coaches in the league, Rick Adelman was apoplectic after the game. In lieu of fielding questions, he offered up an 8-second statement in the corridor, then promptly marched back into the locker room.
“It was a tough game for a lot of reasons,” Adelman said. “That’s all I have to say. I’m not going to get fined.”
Presumably, Adelman felt Martin was fouled in the backcourt by Chris Paul. Martin certainly felt so, although he too protected his paycheck and swallowed his tongue.
“It’s part of the game,” Martin said. “It’s something I’ve been in a thousand times, but I’m going to stop there. I bought some expensive gifts for my family, so I’ll stop there.”
Whatever the case, it was a long procession of lapses as the game unraveled for the Timberwolves. Martin made a bad pass in overtime that led to another uncontested game-tying bucket. In the final two minutes of overtime, Nikola Pekovic, who beasted for most of the night (34 points, 14 rebounds), missed three bunnies at close range, each of which could have tied the game or given the Wolves the lead.
Meanwhile, Love didn’t touch the ball during the final possession of regulation in a tie game, nor down two points with 12 seconds remaining in overtime. That isn’t necessarily a signal that a team has lost its way, but on a night when Love was bulletproof, it was a head-scratcher to see Love not get a look as the Wolves pushed the ball upcourt with the game on the line.
It’s getting harder and harder to believe in Minnesota, even for those among us who were ready to anoint the Wolves as this season’s Warriors. It all looked so promising six weeks ago. The Wolves were quickly mastering Adelman’s read-and-react offense from the high post and perimeter but also could bully opponents down on the block.
The defense wasn’t half-bad, either. Through the end of November, the Wolves ranked ninth in defensive efficiency. They didn’t have a legitimate rim protector on the roster, but they had good size, Ricky Rubio’s pressure up top, Corey Brewer’s skills as a stopper on the wing and a very large man in Pekovic whom nobody wants to encounter in the paint.
The December schedule hasn’t been terribly friendly, but the Wolves have been terrible, their big home win over Portland on Wednesday the one strand of hope. The offense looks nothing like anything Adelman has ever presided over. Half-court possessions are labored affairs, slow grinds into post isolations for either Love or Pekovic.
Martin has battled a knee injury for much of the month and hasn’t looked like himself. As a linchpin of the corner offense, Martin is often a bellwether for Adelman offenses, and if he’s not producing, chances are the offense is dragging.
The Wolves’ 3-and-D guy, Brewer, is shooting 17.1 percent from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, defenses willingly slough off Rubio, practically begging him to shoot. With his confidence waning, Rubio is still racking up assists but is less a playmaker than a reversal machine, swinging the ball to the second side without truly challenging the defense.
Speaking of defense, the Wolves have given up 106.6 points per 100 possession, a mark that would rank 28th in the NBA. Asked to identify the specific problem prior to the game, Adelman said, “We’re not guarding anybody.” Those big bodies now just look slow. Whether it’s Martin or J.J. Barea alongside Rubio, the Wolves don’t get much defensively at the 2. Brewer has conceded that his wayward shot is affecting his defense.
You can still catch glimpses of the Wolves working their strength. A double screen up top for Rubio with Love popping to the 3-point line while Pekovic posts a helpless defender is still one of the least inviting half-court sets to defend. Love is the most complete offensive big man in the game today. Were it not for a fluky backcourt miscue or an unforgiving iron, the story coming out of Los Angeles might be the Wolves’ riding their surefire All-Star to wins over two of the top four offenses in basketball in less than a week.
But counterfactuals rarely provide comfort, so the Timberwolves will have to trudge on and drown out the noise.