Wolves put scare into Heat but come up short again versus contender
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MINNEAPOLIS -- For the second time this week, the young Minnesota Timberwolves had a chance to upset a team favored to represent its conference in the NBA Finals.
And for the second time this week, the Wolves lost it in the waning seconds -- this time allowing LeBron James and the Miami Heat to escape with a 103-101 victory in front of 19,356 shell-shocked Wolves fans at Target Center.
Anthony Tolliver tied the game at 101 with 8.1 seconds left but missed the second free throw that would have given the Wolves the lead. On the ensuing in-bounds play, the Heat ran a lob to Dwyane Wade, who laid it in for a two-point lead.
The Wolves (0-3) had the ball at midcourt with 4.6 seconds left, but Wayne Ellington missed a 21-foot jumper to tie the game.
"Last year, we were happy to stay close and just not get embarrassed," Tolliver said. "That isn't good enough this year."
The Wolves managed a 53-51 halftime lead and stuck with the Eastern Conferences favorites until the wire. But just like Monday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, they weren't able to get over the hump.
"We have three games we feel like we play good, but we don't have any wins and that's what matters," rookie guard Ricky Rubio said. "Win or lose is what matters, and right now, we are 0-3."
It was James' 27th birthday and he did quite a bit of celebrating. He wowed both Wolves and bandwagon Heat fans alike with a fast-break dunk in the third quarter, and his teammates made sure to deliver multiple alley-oop passes to the birthday boy, who finished with 34 points.
Wolves coach Rick Adelman once again gave his team credit for fighting with a talented team, but cited the team's 25 turnovers and 12-of-20 free-throw shooting for their undoing.
Last season, the Wolves went 17-65 and came close to pulling plenty of upsets before falling short. But the Wolves from last year's team insist that isn't the case.
"Absolutely" this is different, Ellington said. "I feel like we are a whole different team. Last year, that situation is dead and gone. That's over with. I feel like our attitude and energy and enthusiasm is totally different than last year."
It was that starting lineup that fell down by as many as 13 points in the first half.
It was the bench that got them back into the game time and time again.
Rubio, Ellington and Anthony Randolph provided the spark off the bench that gave the Wolves a two-point lead at halftime. The bench scored 31 points and shot 62% during the run.
The fans were chanting Rubio's name in the waning moments of both halves when his speed, court vision and creativity completely changed the game and made the Wolves a much different team.
"I thought we did a great job of spacing the court," Adelman said. "He did a great job of finding people."
Rubio was especially impressive with his shooting -- which had been a concern heading into the season -- shooting 3-of-4 in the first half on his way to a 4-of-7 night for 12 points, 12 assists and six rebounds. He also had five turnovers.
Adelman favored his bench completely down the stretch, with Ridnour, Beasley, Darko and Johnson nonexistent in crunch time. Randolph, Rubio, Ellington, Tolliver and rookie Derrick Williams all played more minutes than the four starters not named Love.
"I went with the people that were playing well," Adelman said of his bench that outscored the starters 57-44. "We had all five guys off the bench in double-figures. They came in and did the job."
Ellington was given extended run for the first time this season due injuries to J.J. Barea and Malcolm Lee.
Adelman stuck with him over Johnson in the fourth quarter and most of the second half.
Ellington scored 11 points on 5-of-13 shooting and grabbed five rebounds.
"He was playing great (Friday)," Rubio said of Ellington.
It was another tough game for Beasley, who put out his worst effort of the season. He finished with just four points on 2-of-6 shooting and was in foul trouble for a second straight game. He played 5 minutes, 40 seconds in the second half before Adelman benched him for the entire fourth quarter.
Love continued picking up where his statistical dominance left off a season ago. He has become the only starter than can be counted on to deliver a quality performance night in and night out. The All-Star had a team-high 25 points, 12 rebounds and three assists in 32 minutes.
Whenever Rubio was in the game, the Wolves played with a different energy and enthusiasm. He was the focal point of the rallies in both halves and has to have played his way into the starting lineup at this point.
But Rubio could only do so much and the Heat proved to be too good in the final minutes, escaping after they ran the lob pass to Wade and Ellington's 21-footer was no good.
• 1: Technical foul for Adelman midway through the first quarter for arguing with the officials after a relatively soft hand-check was called against Love while defending James.
• 27: Fast-break points for the run-and-gun Heat, who were determined to push the ball after every Minnesota turnover.
• 12: Assists by Rubio, a new career high.
• 5: Minutes played by Beasley in the second half.
• 2: Consecutive sell outs to start the season at Target Center, the first time since the 1991-92 season they have opened with back-to-back full buildings.
It didn't take long for the injury bug to bite the Wolves. Just three games into the season and they are already down two point guards and a center.
The team announced before the game Friday that Lee will miss up to six weeks with a torn meniscus in his knee.
"He had a good camp, and he had some problems with that knee that we didn't expect this to happen," Adelman said. "But I don't think it is real serious and he will have some time to recover and get back. He had played very well and we were very pleased with him."
Adelman said he can see Lee playing either point guard or shooting guard when he returns to action.
"He's an aggressive player and defends very well," Adelman said, "and it is unfortunate for him, but better to get it fixed now than to wait."
Compounding the problem of losing Lee for an extended period of time is the nagging hamstring injury to Barea, who left Tuesday's loss to Milwaukee early after coming up lame on a fast break. Adelman said Barea is day-to-day and still could play Sunday when Barea's old team, the Dallas Mavericks, come to town.
"It is better to make sure he gets healthy (rather than rush him back)," Adelman said. "He feels like it is a lot better than when he first did it. We need him for the long run."
Somewhat surprisingly, this is the first hamstring injury for the 27-year-old from Puerto Rico and those things have a tend to linger, which is why Adelman wants to be cautious.
Some scratched their heads with Wolves president of basketball operations David Kahn brought in a Barea, which put four point guards on the roster. But it turns out the depth was needed just three games into a brutal 66-game season.
Center Nikola Pekovic missed his third straight game with a groin injury and is still listed as day-to-day.
Mentor vs. student
Friday night wasn't the first time Heat coach Eric Spoelstra and Adelman have met. Turns out, the two go back to when Spoelstra was a high school hoops star in Oregon while Adelman was the head coach of the Portland Trailblazers.
"I've known him for a long time since he was in high school, watched him play in college," Adelman said.
Spoelstra said Adelman was a mentor of his and the person who made him decide he wanted to get into coaching after his playing days at the University of Portland were over.
"He has really paid his dues," Adelman said. "Started with the film room, everybody knows that. He was always a really smart player and everything. When he got into it I thought he was going to be a coach and he was thrown into a situation that is really difficult.
"I thought he did a great job last year. When you get to the finals and lose in six games, there's a lot worse things in this league. I think he has done a great job, he has really opened them up this year."
-- Ironic chants coming from the always-spirited student section when Darko was at the line shooting free throws in the first quarter.
The Wolves get New Year's Eve off to rest and recover before their brutal stretch to open the season continues against Dallas on New Year's Day. From there, the Wolves play their third game in four nights on Monday, when San Antonio Spurs visit Minneapolis.