Extended lapses again prove costly for Wolves, despite strong rally
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MINNEAPOLS -- For two quarters Friday, the Minnesota Timberwolves had no answer for Memphis.
Out of sync defensively and exposed inside without big man Nikola Pekovic, the Wolves could muster very little offensively to counter the visiting Grizzlies. Held to a season-low 37 points in the first half, Minnesota looked simply overmatched in a face-off between two teams that intend to vie for a Western Conference playoff spot.
However, the storyline rapidly began to undergo alterations as the second half got underway. Kevin Love, despite tweaking his ankle in the second quarter, revived the Wolves with an 18-point third quarter. Suddenly, Minnesota was in control with less five minutes remaining, holding on to a three-point lead.
Regardless of how poorly the Wolves had played early on, the second half sparked the thought that maybe a turnaround, not just in the game, but the season as a whole, was indeed in full swing. After all, Minnesota entered Friday having nabbed wins in five of its last six games.
Instead, the game's final minutes brought an ending the Wolves (23-23) had hoped they had overcome. As quickly as their resurgence had come on, it faded minute by minute as Zach Randolph and the Grizzlies bullied their way to a 13-3 run down the stretch and eventually handed the Wolves a 94-90 defeat.
Though it came as a result of a last-second shot by J.J. Barea, Friday marked the Wolves' 12th loss in 13 games decided by four points or less this season. Either way, they were left with a reminder, one they have received numerous times, that a full effort in just one half will routinely spell doom.
"We kept going against the grain the whole first half," coach Rick Adelman said. "It was like we were just going to make the home run play. It was everybody. The second half was better, but it just wasn't good enough."
Facing the Grizzlies, currently one of the NBA's hottest teams as winners of 10 of their last 11 games, was always going to be a tough victory to lock down, especially with Pekovic out.
But a win, one that would have been another crucial step forward for the Wolves, was in their grasp even after a dismal opening 24 minutes. Letting it slip away left an obvious sting. Fully healthy or not, at some point the Wolves will reach the juncture where blown chances in close games could prove disastrous in a possible tight playoff race.
Barea, who played the entire fourth quarter instead of Ricky Rubio, wasn't about to put the "moral victory" tag on the Wolves' comeback efforts.
"No, we're disappointed," Barea said. "It's a loss. It doesn't matter if we finished strong. We have to come out tomorrow (at Atlanta) and go from the get-go."
Minnesota looked like two completely different teams on Friday. In the first half, it was the one that has suffered through repeated lapses in energy and floated at or below .500. For almost 20 minutes of the second half, the Wolves were the squad that has been seen in the last two weeks starting to put the pieces together.
To the Wolves' dismay, they couldn't hold on to the latter identity.
Missing Pekovic, who is out for at least a week with a sore right ankle, was key. The Wolves were at an obvious disadvantage inside pairing up against Randolph and Marc Gasol.
"I looked at Pek after the game and patted him on the back and said, 'We need you,'" Love said. "It's easy to see when they have two bigs that are such a focal point to their team."
But the Wolves can't afford Pekovic's absence being the overarching scapegoat. When Minnesota scored a big road win at Memphis back on Dec. 18, the Grizzlies were without Gasol. Even if Pekovic is out for a minimal amount of time, Minnesota has to show the ability to adapt.
The Wolves head to Atlanta Saturday for the second game in a back-to-back. A win could help keep them on an upward track. The schedule sets up in their favor, with three of their next four opponents sitting below .500. However, a loss would put them on the verge of falling back into the same up and down cycle that has hounded them all year.