Fast approaching the midway point, the Timberwolves are 2½ games out of the Western Conference’s final playoff spot and one game under .500 in a regular season in which they are 0-10 in games decided by four or fewer points.
They also could be on a precipice, poised for their season to go either way after Wednesday’s prickly 104-103 home loss to Phoenix.
That game concluded with J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham glumly sitting at the end of the bench, removed from their teammates during two timeouts down a closing stretch when the Wolves lost a nine-point lead with less than five minutes left.
Afterward, Wolves star Kevin Love unsolicitedly criticized both men without naming them, saying he was angered by the sight of a team splintered when the players should have been unified in their pursuit of a Suns team they are chasing for one of the West’s final playoff spots.
The Wolves held a lengthy film session and team meeting Thursday before calling off practice, and thus avoiding a league-mandated interview session with media members. Coach Rick Adelman discussed the matter with both players, who presumably were unhappy with playing time on a night when Barea played 13 minutes and Cunningham 11.
“We dealt with it internally,” Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders said. “We talked to them. They admitted they made a mistake. That’s pretty much it. Move on.”
Saunders said he is not concerned his team is at a sensitive turning point both because of Love’s recent public comments and late-game situations that illustrate the Wolves lack a player who can create his own shot and they lack a point guard who can present an offensive threat and finish at the rim with the game on the line.
Last week, Barea bristled at Love’s public comments about the Wolves’ underperforming bench. On Wednesday, Love again took his concerns public about a matter concerning Barea even though Wolves coach Rick Adelman last week said he preferred teammates settle issues privately.
“That’s part of the ups and downs of a season, that’s what it is,” Saunders said. “It’s dealing with losses and dealing with wins. Success in this league isn’t how you deal with wins. Success in this league is how you deal with losses. How we’ve done previously is we’ve bounced back. Have we lost more than two or three games in a row? I don’t even know.”
The Wolves lost three consecutive games in November and have lost consecutive games two other times. They’ll attempt avoiding to lose two consecutively again Friday against Charlotte at Target Center.
Love’s postgame comments both after last week’s Dallas game and Wednesday’s loss generated plenty of chatter on sports-talk radio and social media, particularly after Love struggled through a 4-for-20 shooting night.
“It’s two guys that we expect more from them,” Love said. “I think they expect more from themselves. I’m not trying to single anybody out and I don’t want to make it bigger than it is, but it’s just a team that we needed to beat tonight and we needed everybody in there, even guys that didn’t play any minutes. We need to have a team and a bench that’s really in it together.”
The Suns outscored the Wolves 9-1 in the final 2:44 Wednesday and held them without a basket for the final 4:31. The Wolves’ one-point loss follows narrow losses to Dallas and Oklahoma City last week and one to the Clippers in Los Angeles the week before that.
“Everybody has to believe,” said Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio, who made a critical turnover with 25 seconds left Wednesday. “Of course, somebody maybe is frustrated because he didn’t have the minutes that he wanted or he’s not in the game in late situations. But something happened and no matter what, it’s Coach’s decision. You have to be with the team.
‘‘… Not having the team together, that’s terrible. We have to be a team and believe in ourselves.”
They presumably talked about such matters Thursday.
Saunders calls such discussions as well as 10 close losses without a similar victory part of what a young team and young players need to experience before they learn to win.
“This is part of the process a team has to grow,” Saunders said. “They don’t understand these situations and these games. Just because you lose some games doesn’t mean it’s not ever going to turn. It’s a very tough process to go through, but it’s a process everybody has to go through. You can’t shortchange it.
“We could be 21 or 22-and-whatever, but we’re not. We’re 17-18. That’s what we are. As I said the first day I took this job, we were going to roll our sleeves up and we had a lot of work to do. We still have a lot to do.”