Timberwolves Week 7: Two steps forward, two steps back

Mike Ehrmann

Every time the Timberwolves make you think that they've got it all figured out, they fall back into their struggling ways.

The Timberwolves played four games in week seven - four games that could well be split into a pair of two-game considerations, one optimistic, one pessimistic. The first of these was uplifting - back-to-back wins in New Orleans and at home against Dallas, wins that extended the team's winning streak to four games and brought the return of Ricky Rubio. By Sunday, the Wolves were flying high.

By Tuesday, they were back down low. Monday, in the first game containing both Rubio and Kevin Love for the Wolves, Minnesota couldn't find a way past a mediocre Orlando team, as the Magic out-hustled and out-shot the visitors. And Tuesday, the Heat romped easily over Minnesota, despite the Wolves' huge rebounding advantage, mostly because the team's awful three-point shooting again reared its ugly head.

Shall we focus on the positives? On the team that found a way to win four straight despite more injuries and missed games? Or shall we dwell on the negatives, on the team that can't shoot three-pointers and has trouble scoring at the rim?

At the moment, there are three overarching storylines that are dominating the team.

1. Injuries. Malcolm Lee is now out indefinitely, with cartilage damage in his knee. Josh Howard has joined him, hyperextending his own knee. Chase Budinger is out for months. Brandon Roy is just returning to practice and still could be weeks away. Rubio is on a minutes limit, and didn't play at all Tuesday in the second night of a back-to-back.

All of this has led to a team that, at times, has to make do with three guards and no wing players save Andrei Kirilenko. Dante Cunningham, who's got a power forward's game and a power forward's body, actually played some minutes as a shooting guard. Derrick Williams has seen the floor at the wing as well. This is not where the Wolves want either guy playing.

Lee and Budinger remain out indefinitely, but Howard could return this weekend, and Roy is hoping to make his comeback soon after Christmas as well. Still, for the next week or so, there's going to be a shortage in the backcourt.

2. The team's three-point shooting is startlingly incompetent. The Wolves are last in the NBA from downtown, shooting less than 30%, the only team in the NBA under the 31% mark. Tuesday against Miami, they tossed up an abysmal 4-17 performance; the difference in the game was Miami going 13-25 from distance.

This would be bad enough, but teams are starting to catch on; both Orlando and Miami simply ignored Minnesota's outside shooters, preferring instead to harass players inside. It's no coincidence that the Heat blocked fourteen - fourteen! - Timberwolf shots on Tuesday.

Minnesota makes up its deficiencies, in some ways, on the boards - the Wolves may well be the league's best-rebounding team, something that gives them plenty of second-chance points and also contributes to the team attempting the third-most free throws in the league. But cleaning the glass and getting to the line aren't always enough to overcome player after player missing wide-open looks from the three-point line. The Wolves will need to pull defenders out, to open space inside for their interior players to score.

3. Kevin Love is not playing like Kevin Love. Or, at least, not like the Kevin Love that we grew so fond of last season. In the month of December so far, Love is shooting 33% from the floor - not from behind the arc, from the floor overall. He's endured a couple of truly awful nights - 3-17, 4-18, 6-15, a pair of 2-10s - and has scored 20 or more points just twice in seven games.

At the moment, the guy just can't buy a bucket. He's still rebounding wildly - second in the league, with 14.2 per game - but when he struggles to shoot and can't make up for it with a lot of free throws, the Wolves offense as a whole tends to struggle.

The good news, if there is good news, is that the Wolves have a chance to overturn the pessimism tonight. Tonight's game with Oklahoma City has been circled on a lot of calendars, perhaps since last season's double-OT thriller, in which Love scored 51 points but the Wolves still lost 149-140.

A win tonight sets the Wolves back on the positive path. A loss sets them back to .500, and further into the negativity of the second half of their week.

Also this week: The Wolves travel to Madison Square Garden on Sunday to take on the red-hot Knicks, then return home for Christmas and a Boxing Day tilt with James Harden, Jeremy Lin, and the rest of the Houston Rockets.

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