Role reversal: Wolves reserves play well in narrow loss to Portland
FEB 09, 2014 12:35a ET
MINNEAPOLIS -- When the Timberwolves called timeout with 1 minute, 25 seconds left in Saturday's 117-110 loss to Portland, Ricky Rubio trudged toward the bench, bellowing the mother of all expletives before taking his seat.
He was about to finish leaving every ounce of energy on a basketball court for the second time this week, leading a makeshift lineup of role players and reserves to the cusp of an eye-opening upset against one of the Western Conference's best.
He attacked with confidence often sought but rarely seen this season. So did shooting guard Chase Budinger, who's still laboring after preseason knee surgery. Corey Brewer agitated the Blazers throughout the evening, winding his way to the rim and playing the pesky on-ball defense for which he's become known. Ronny Turiaf was equally monstrous on the boards and in the defensive paint. A kid from Vegas named Shabazz dazzled a crowd of 17,506.
Minnesota's top three scorers were part of that contingent, both engaged and understandably amazed at their absence's negligibility through 3 1/2 quarters.
Yet as Rubio looked up at the Target Center video board, he saw a final tally indicating a game his team once controlled was over.
And the Timberwolves, despite their feistiness, were on the short end. Again.
"You gave everything you had, and you get no win," Rubio said. "But, I mean, this is the way to fall. We have to keep doing what we're doing."
A 13-1 Trail Blazers run midway through the fourth quarter proved to be Minnesota's undoing in its third straight defeat and fifth in its past six contests. With the way the Timberwolves (24-27) have failed to close out contests this year, that's a surprise only to the most naive or casual observer, especially against the NBA's No. 1 offense.
"The guys played their butts off," coach Rick Adelman said.
Rubio carried the night in that category, grinding his way to a career-high 25 points -- 11 in the first quarter as the Timberwolves avoided an early slip-up -- and nine assists. He made 8 of 19 field-goal attempts and a pair of key 3-pointers that helped Minnesota lead by as many as seven against a team that handed it a 115-104 loss Jan. 25 in Portland.
It wasn't unlike Rubio's 19-point, five-assist showing in Wednesday's setback at Oklahoma City, when Love, Pekovic and Brewer were all either sidelined or away from the team. That day, too, Rubio's assertiveness paid dividends, and the Timberwolves were within striking distance until late against the Western Conference leaders.
"We gave ourselves a chance to win," said Brewer, who missed the Thunder game while celebrating the birth of his son. "Guys have been staying ready."
Brewer can credit himself in that effort. While he's a low-priority option among Minnesota's normal starting five -- Love, Martin and Pekovic account for more than 59 percent of the squad's offense -- the wiry swing man took full advantage of his opportunity to produce more, notching 26 points and seven rebounds.
Budinger got the nod at shooting guard in Martin's place and hit 3 of 6 3-pointers on the way to a season-high 19 points -- the most he'd scored since April 15, 2012.
That span includes two left-knee meniscus operations and a frustratingly slow return to full health this season.
"I felt more like myself today," Budinger said. "Hopefully, this is a stepping stone for me, and I can just keep improving."
He wasn't the only wing to turn things up in Martin's absence. Rookie small forward Shabazz Muhammad doubled his previous season/career high with 12 points on 4 of 8 shooting. His 16 minutes, 45 seconds played were by far his most substantial action of the season.
"We just had to take an opportunity," said Muhammad, who spent four games in the NBA Developmental League earlier this season. "Coach was saying 'next man up,' and I think we did a great job of just having a good spirit out there and playing hard."
Muhammad's chance came via a broken bone in the left thumb of Martin, who had an X-ray performed Saturday morning and was ruled out not long after. Players found out about his ailment upon arriving at the arena but were surprised to learn just a few minutes before game time Love (left quad contusion) wouldn't be able to play.
The All-Star starter took a knee to the thigh Friday night at New Orleans and was already aching from several collisions sustained throughout the past week. Dante Cunningham started in his place for the second time in three games, scoring 14 points and pulling down 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the season.
Pekovic missed his seventh straight game with right-ankle bursitis. In his stead, Turiaf pulled down 13 rebounds -- his most since April 1, 2009 -- blocked three shots, dished out three assists and helped Minnesota outscore Portland 52-28 in the paint.
"I thought we had a lot of fun out there and got to play together," Muhammad said. "But to come up short was really disappointing."
Thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge's 26 points, 13 from Wesley Matthews in the final period and a cold, 9-for-27 fourth-quarter shooting effort from the Timberwolves, Portland still improved to 36-15 and dropped Minnesota to a full four games from playoff contention.
The 11th-place Timberwolves have home games against the Rockets and Nuggets to try and gain ground before the All-Star break. Pekovic probably won't be back before then, and there's a high-percentage chance Martin isn't, either.
But even if Love can heal up and get auxiliary support in a fashion similar to Saturday's showing, the chasm between Minnesota and the postseason may shrink yet. Provided the Timberwolves, healthy or unhealthy, can figure out how to finish a game.
"You look at a game like this, you're hoping that's a catalyst for a lot of those guys," Adelman said of his second-tier players. "You keep moving forward, it's hopefully gonna help us."
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