HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — So this is just how it’s going to be for the Minnesota Timberwolves, a season so marred by constant injury that it stands to test their collective sanity as much as their ambitious playoff aspirations.
The Wolves already knew they’re moving ahead without star forward Kevin Love for a second stretch of games after he re-fractured his right hand last week, but Wednesday’s news that he’ll miss more time than expected, the next eight to 10 weeks, severely worsened that blow just one day after the sigh-of-relief return of point guard Ricky Rubio from his second injury stint.
Love initially broke his hand before the start of the season doing knuckle pushups at home. He missed the first nine games of the season and the Wolves, without their two young stars, were pleased to be 5-4 when Love surprised everyone with an early return.
A stunning spat of injuries followed. Brandon Roy, Chase Budinger and Malcolm Lee remain out with knee injuries. Rubio played in just his sixth game in Tuesday’s hard-fought home win over the Atlanta Hawks to push their record to 16-15, just 1 1/2 games out of the West’s final playoff spot. The Wolves played that one without resolute coach Rick Adelman — out for personal reasons — as they will again tonight trying to stay above .500 in a tough road test at Oklahoma City.
Coaches impress on their players all the time that the 82-game NBA grind is about survival. Expected to be without Love, their leading scorer (18.3 ppg) and by far most productive rebounder (14. 0 rpg), until mid-to-late March, the Wolves are truly in the fox hole now.
They’ll carry through the high hopes of its long-suffering fan base and secure the franchise’s first postseason berth since their lone Western Conference finals run in 2003-04 only by sticking together and pushing harder.
Rubio’s return is a good start. He played 19 minutes on Tuesday and finished with four points and eight assists. He missed the previous four games with back spasms, an issue believed to be caused by overcompensation as he learns to trust the surgically repaired left knee. He’s dealt with the groin and back problems since making his debut on Dec. 15 from last season’s ACL tear.
Adelman and the team’s training staff will have to closely monitor his minutes and progress, but the belief is he’s ready to ramp up and burden a bigger load.
To keep within arm’s length of a playoff spot to this point, the Wolves have heavily relied upon stat-stuffing forward Andrei Kirilenko, center Nikola Pekovic, who has eight double-doubles in last 13 games, emerging Russian rookie Alexey Shved and the diminutive backcourt duo of Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea.
But how long can they keep up the fight in a competitive Western Conference that could take 45 wins to get in?
And which team or teams drop off? The top four, barring catastrophic injury — something the Wolves know never to discount — seem like locks. Golden State is playing well enough and for long enough to not expect a collapse in the second half of the season.
Of the next three teams — Houston, Portland and Denver — none are sure bets, yet the trio is currently on a collective 10-game winning streak.
And lost among the crowd currently on the outside looking in is the Los Angeles Lakers. A glorious run back into contention doesn’t appear imminent, but can’t be eliminated as a possibility either simply because of their proven talent.
The Wolves have expended tremendous energy to stay afloat. How much longer can they grind away? Long enough for Love’s eventual return to be meaningful?
We’re about to find out.