Wessel: Wolves have become a shell of themselves without Ricky Rubio
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Making the playoffs with a healthy Ricky Rubio was always going to be a big task.
If the Minnesota Timberwolves' current seven-game road trip is any indication, they're not up to the task without him.
Back when Rubio's ACL was intact, the Wolves and coach Rick Adelman called this a make-or-break road trip.
The Wolves are 2-4 on the longest trip in franchise history -- a quirk of a lockout-shortened season that every team faces -- heading into Friday's game at the Oklahoma City Thunder, who just so happen to be the best team in the Western Conference and on the shortlist of teams capable of winning the championship.
The Wolves find themselves 2½ games back of the No. 8 spot in the West they once held. They are slotted 11th behind Utah and Phoenix and have Portland and Golden State hot on their tails at just one and two games back, respectively.
The trip was going to be hard even with a healthy Rubio -- although just about every Wolf was quick to point out they had a better record away from Target Center heading into it.
What's clear is the Wolves are a shell of the team they were when they had their Spanish leader, both physically and mentally.
One of the trademarks of the 2011-12 Wolves has been their fighting spirit, evidenced by six double-digit comeback wins. That wasn't seen against Sacramento, San Antonio and. to a lesser extent, the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Wolves allowed a bad Kings team to bully them around and make them look silly in the second half of a 115-99 blowout in which J.J. Barea and Kevin Love had to be separated by teammates.
They never even showed up in Wednesday's 116-100 rout in San Antonio and allowed an aging, but still talented Spurs team to rub their faces in it even without a healthy point guard for much of the game.
They also allowed the Lakers to toy with them for their 19th straight loss in that series. The Wolves managed to only lose by five, but don't mistake a garbage-time run for a game Kobe Bryant knew was never in jeopardy.
Injuries happen in sports at all levels. Same with adversity. Adelman challenged his team to overcome their inevitable hardships and use the road trip to come together as a team rather than falling apart at the seams, which they appear to be doing.
And now it isn't just Rubio the Wolves are without. Nikola Pekovic will miss his second straight game on Friday while he gets his ankle evaluated in the Twin Cities. The longer these injuries persist, the more concern there is this could turn into a chronic problem for the 6-11, 290-pound beast from Montenegro.
The defense suddenly has gaping holes down low and on the perimeter without the immovable object in Pekovic and the arms of Rubio that resemble Stretch Armstrong's. The Wolves are displaying an effort on defense that looks like the days of Kurt Rambis.
The holes on defense suddenly allow teams to get easy baskets. The type of baskets that cause the Wolves to throw their hands up in frustration. The type of frustration that carries over onto offense and causes the Wolves to chuck ill-advised shots. The type of ill-advised shots that allow for easy defensive rebounds. The type of easy defensive rebounds that sets the whole vicious cycle in motion again. You get the point.
Just like last year, the team is relying on Love to do it all himself. He can carry the load in stretches -- as we saw at times last year at times and at Golden State, where he practically won the game by himself -- but he can't be expected to do it over a long period of time. Few, if any, guys in the league can do that.
Without Rubio and Pekovic, the Wolves serve as a painful reminder to last season. They have 18 games left to prove this notion wrong -- otherwise, they will be extending their already NBA-long seven-year playoff drought another year.