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Updated: February 24th, 2013 5:34pm
Wessel: Looking for a silver lining for Wolves? Here's a small one

Wessel: Looking for a silver lining for Wolves? Here's a small one

by
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Timberwolves are finishing their season the way they started: Waiting for a pair of injured players to return to the lineup.

Granted, the stakes are much lower now than they were in the beginning when the Wolves believed the return of Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love would vault them into playoff contention.

The Wolves, no matter what some of them might say, don't have a shot at making the playoffs. But the return of Chase Budinger and Love (for a second time from a broken hand) is still important for the future of this team.

The Wolves desperately need the boost those two will give, especially after Sunday's 100-99 loss to Golden State at Target Center.

The vibe in the locker room was downright depressing afterward. You could hear a pin drop as players milled about quietly, not wanting to talk about the 16-point lead they had blown in their latest example of failing to understand basic late-game situations.

Both Love and Budinger are tentatively scheduled to return in mid-March.

Budinger (lateral meniscus tear) is traveling to Florida on Monday to get his knee looked at by Dr. James Andrews. Meawhile, Love intends to go to New York to meet with his surgeon to find out a more definitive timetable on when he can return. He is hoping to play in the last 15 to 20 games.

"This is all going to depend on what the doctor says and where my healing is at and how I feel," Love said Sunday. "I'd love to get back to the team. We play a lot of good teams the final 15 to 20 games. But I don't know when that's going to be, when I'm going to be cleared."

Budinger and Love's rehabs have been very different. Budinger has been getting plenty of shots and is hoping to be cleared to resume running and cutting for the first time since injuring his knee on Nov. 10 in Chicago.

On the flip side, Love has been doing plenty of conditioning, determined to not be out of shape like he was when he returned the first time. But he still cannot shoot a basketball because his hand remains swollen.

Barring a miracle, the impact of Budinger and Love's return won't be on the playoff race, but it is still crucial in developing chemistry and ending the season on a high note for both them and the team.

Budinger's contract is up at the end of the season, but indications are the Wolves want to bring him back. If so, he and Love will be key pieces for a team that will be looking to avoid going a full a decade without making the playoffs.

"It's very important just to get back with the full team, Chase included, because we've been working out every day together just hoping to get back," Love said. "He's a guy that's been great, coming in, working his butt off."

Budinger, acquired from Houston over the summer for a first-round pick, only played six games with his new teammates before injuring his knee. None of those games came with Love in the lineup.

There are chemistry issues with Love, too.

He has played fewer than 20 games with new teammates Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved. Perhaps most alarming is that Love only has been on the court with Rubio for 28 minutes this season.

This comes after a lockout-shortened season where the two only played in 36 games together. So through two years, the supposed cornerstones of the franchise have barely played a half-season together. That is one reason the Wolves are 46-72 since Rubio arrived in 2011-12.

It will take some time for Love and Budinger to get their shot and legs back underneath them, but their return will be a boost. Rattling off some wins to finish up the season strong with a healthy Love and Budinger isn't a great consolation for fans that had their hearts set on the playoffs, but it will give a boost to a franchise that desperately needs one heading into a crucial 2013-14 season when the pressure to make the playoffs should be even more intense.

If nothing else, waiting on Budinger and Love gives fans something to focus on as another disappointing season winds down. It's just too bad the stakes aren't going to be higher when the pair does set foot on the court again.

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