MINNEAPOLIS -- Success and improvement breed confidence, a key to fending off frustration. Kevin Love has followed that formula and progressed to the point where his clutch contributions toward big wins are expected by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Love scored 12 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter, including a pair of free throws with 0.1 seconds left, to lift the Timberwolves to a 92-91 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday night.
"I can finish games. I can close games. But it has a lot to do with my teammates. They've had my back," said Love, who missed 13 of his first 15 shots. "They say if you keep putting yourself in that situation, you're going to eventually get comfortable with it."
With the Target Center crowd of 18,759 standing and roaring, Love drove to the basket off an inbound play with his head down and tempted Andre Iguodala to reach in and try to swipe the ball away from the baseline. The whistle sounded, Love walked to the line, and he calmly swished both shots.
"Playing three quarters of basketball like that in the past, I don't think I was mature enough to overcome that and persevere through that," said Love, who also grabbed his usual 15 rebounds.
Ricky Rubio had a career-high 22 points to go with six rebounds and five assists. His backup, J.J. Barea, added 14 points to help offset another strong game by Jrue Holiday of the Sixers. Holiday had 20 points on 10-for-20 shooting, plus five rebounds and three steals, but the league's best defensive team again failed to come through with the last-second stop it needed.
Coach Doug Collins listed overtime losses to New Jersey and Denver, and a one-point defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers in his lament over this one.
"It's a shame we haven't been able to get that critical stop. Our guys played very hard," Collins said.
Neither team led by more than one over the final 6½ minutes. Love drained a 3-pointer down the stretch and hit a 21-footer with less than a minute to go to push the Wolves to a 90-89 lead. Thaddeus Young answered on the other end for the Sixers with a jumper from the wing, and Love missed from 3-point range.
Lou Williams, who got it going in the second half after Philadelphia's leading scorer attempted only three shots before the break, tried a crossover step-back jumper from the top of the key with Martell Webster in his face that rimmed out. Love grabbed the rebound with less than 4 seconds left, setting up the final possession.
The Sixers weren't pleased by the foul call, but Collins declined to speculate on it. Elton Brand said there was "no need to get into fines or anything." Iguodala said he thought he forced a jump ball.
"Both teams played good basketball. It was a competitive game. It just came down to the last play," said Iguodala, who had 13 points.
Nikola Pekovic had 17 points and nine rebounds for the Timberwolves (16-16), who notched their third three-game winning streak of the season to move back to .500. They play at Denver on Monday night, starting a stretch of 16 out of 23 games on the road. Coach Rick Adelman again shortened his rotation to eight, and the Wolves improved to 6-3 with Pekovic and Love in the starting lineup.
"We just showed we can play with anybody, and we didn't play on our level," Pekovic said.
Still in command of the Atlantic Division, the Sixers (20-12) played nine of their past 11 games against teams currently in the top five in either conference. This is their first three-game losing streak of the season.
"We are four last-second shots from having 24 wins right now," Brand said. "We've lost four games on buzzer-beaters or late shots or not getting a stop. We've just got to find a way to regroup and find a way to finish these games off."
Collins has been pushing Holiday to assert himself more offensively, and the third-year point guard tried to do that. It looked as if Rubio was listening in on the pep talk, judging by the first half. He helped the Wolves dig out of an early 18-7 deficit with a tying 3-pointer late in the first quarter. He also reached the free throw line six times, making all six.
With Love and Pekovic playing together now in the post, the Wolves have drawn even more attention around the basket, putting the onus on Rubio and his teammates in the backcourt to score on the perimeter.
"We had to take those shots. You can miss or make, but if you don't take it it's a bad shot," Rubio said, adding: "If they let me shoot, I'm going to keep shooting."
The last time Rubio scored 20-plus points in a game was when he was a 17-year-old playing for the DKV Joventut club in Spain, 4½ years ago. ... Williams had averaged nearly 19 points over his last seven games. He finished with 13. ... Adelman in 32 games is halfway to the victory total of predecessor Kurt Rambis, who coached 164 games here. ... Brand went just 2 for 9 from the floor.
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