Wessel: Despite injuries, Wolves are proving their culture has changed
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It was Ricky Rubio who spoke for just about everybody when he described his reaction to the NBA's lockout-shortened schedule this season.
"Three games in a row," the rookie said on his first day at the Minnesota Timberwolves' practice facility. "What the hell?"
It was Rubio's first day as a Minnesota resident, his English still broken, but he summed up the feelings of fans, players and coaches alike about the Wolves playing 66 games in 131 days.
There was no question from the gate injuries would be a concern. Not every player did their due diligence training-wise during the offseason, and there was no way a 14-day training camp could make up for an extended summer of partying and PS3.
Further, just the nicks and bumps NBA players pick up along the way would be amplified because of the intense schedule.
But nobody could have predicted this young Wolves team would be this banged up just 18 games into the season.
Just look at this:
• Martell Webster and Brad Miller have yet to play a game this season because of offseason back and knee surgery, respectively. They're eligible to play this weekend after missing over a quarter of the season.
• Rookie Malcolm Lee suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee during training camp and has missed the entire season. He will be out until the end of February.
• Michael Beasley suffered a mid-foot sprain on Jan. 6, has missed the last 11 games and is still listed as being out indefinitely.
• J.J. Barea has played in only six of 18 games because of hamstring and ankle injuries and remains out indefinitely, with next week as a target.
In total, that is 79 games missed between those seven players just a shade over a quarter of the way into the season.
The Wolves are 8-10, good for 11th place in the Western Conference and 2½ games back from what would be their first playoff berth since 2004.
Expectations at the start of the season ranged from cautiously optimistic to some players -- including Kevin Love and Rubio -- tossing around the "P"-word.
But the fact the Wolves are within striking distance of the No. 8 playoff spot -- the Holy Grail for a team mired in mediocrity since Kevin Garnett left -- is nothing short of impressive.
The Wolves needed 32 games to get to eight wins last season. They needed just 18 to reach the same number this year.
But it isn't just the number of wins that's a good since. It is how they are getting those wins that should have Wolves fans lined up down First Avenue.
Take Wednesday night's win at Dallas. The Wolves had only nine healthy players, only one of which was a point guard. They were playing the reigning World Champions on a night the Mavericks received their championship rings. They trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half. But they still found a way to win thanks not only to the brilliance of Love and Rubio, but unsung heroes such as Wayne Ellington and Nikola Pekovic.
Coach Rick Adelman has completely changed the mindset and culture of a young locker room that had the enthusiasm and energy of a funeral. To put it simply, he has them believing they can win on nights when a year ago they wouldn't have bothered even showing up.
To put in terms of an underdog sports movie: last year's 17-65 season under Kurt Rambis was the first 30 minutes, in which the audience sees firsthand how hopeless the loveable losers are. The first 18 games under Adelman has been the montage in which those losers begin believing in themselves, gaining confidence and throwing alley-oops.
If the Wolves can start getting more bodies on the court and start rattling off wins above a .500 clip, there is no reason this team can't have a puncher's chance at the final playoff spot.
Even if they do fall short, there is almost guaranteed to be intriguing spring basketball in this town for the first time in eight years. And Wolves fans would have jumped at that opportunity 365 days ago, when the team was 10-35, Rambis was coaching and they were still kicking the tires on Jonny Flynn.