Thunder Still See Bright Future For Wolves

Mark Remme
Wolves Editor/Writer

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Saturday’s 115-110 loss to Oklahoma City acted almost as a teaser for Wolves fans, a look at a young, healthy Thunder squad that has put the right pieces in place over the last four years and has built itself into a legitimate championship contender this spring.

It’s a team filled with youthful stars—most notably forward Kevin Durant and guard Russell Westbrook—that not so long ago were the core players on a team trying to break out. At the All-Star Weekend in Orlando, both players said Minnesota’s roster reminded them a lot of themselves just a year or two ago, and even as recently as late-March the Timberwolves showed their grit and resilience in a double-overtime loss to the Thunder that pushed Oklahoma City to its limits.

But one key element has been there for the Thunder both this season and in seasons past, a luxury that Minnesota has not had in the past month. Oklahoma City has remained healthy.

Thunder coach Scott Brooks said that’s as vital a piece in championship contention as anything.

“It’s a big part,” he said. “You can’t win in this league consistently if you’re not healthy. I don’t care—you can lose a player or two occasionally. But what [the Wolves] have done, Rick [Adelman] has done a great job building this team and making them competitive every night.”

That’s been the main issue for Minnesota since losing rookie guard Ricky Rubio on March 9. In the past four weeks, the Wolves have had eight total players miss time due to various injuries. That’s kept some of their top players unavailable, including Rubio and most recently forward Kevin Love with a concussion, which turned Minnesota from a playoff contender into a squad that dipped out of the race.

Brooks said Rubio in particular is a game changer—an underrated defender that is so active on both ends of the floor that simply his presence on the court elevates everyone else’s game.

Still, the imprint that the Wolves left through the first two-thirds of the season made Brooks acknowledge that Minnesota is not going away. With center Nikola Pekovic emerging this season and others stepping up when called upon, the Wolves have a system in place that bodes well for their future.

Brooks said they will again be a difficult divisional foe to deal with in 2012-13.

“It’s unfortunate that it happened because they were really playing good basketball; they were right at .500 and fighting for their playoff position,” Brooks said. “But they have a good foundation, and next year they’ll be right back in it.”

Durant, who has been complimentary about the Timberwolves and the play of Love and Rubio all season long, expressed a hint of relief in Minnesota not making the playoffs this year. After all, the Wolves have lost two games by five points or fewer and taken another game to double overtime against Oklahoma City this season.

“Those guys are tough,” Durant said. “It’s always tough coming here and playing. Every year when I come here we always go until the last second. Tonight was no different, and you have to give those guys credit for fighting hard without their main guys and still making it a game.”

Brooks and the Thunder are enjoying the same ride Minnesota hopes to experience over the next few seasons. Oklahoma City was 23-59 three years ago, then made the playoffs as an eighth seed in 2010 and reached the Western Conference finals in 2011. This year, they are 44-16, the top seed in the West and have a player in Durant that is a prime candidate for Most Valuable Player this season.

Minnesota has that type of player in Love, as well as a ball handler and defensive stopper in Rubio that make up a tandem poised to help the Wolves make that leap. Minnesota’s 25 wins this season are eight more than a year ago, and with a healthy roster the Timberwolves hope to take the next step next season.

Adelman said before Saturday’s game he’s seen that maturity happen before. Early in his tenure in Portland, the Blazers went from 39 wins in 1988-89 to 59 wins and Western Conference champions the next season.

He said it takes the right pieces to fall into place, but the Wolves have their foundation set.

“When you have a young team and those are your stars, that’s what they have to do,” Adelman said. “I just go back to that Portland team. We had Terry Porter and Jerome Kersey and Clyde [Drexler], and we got Buck Williams and those other young guys like Terry, they got better every year.”

He said it’s important for the team to keep building on that base. Oklahoma City, for example, complemented Durant and Westbrook by adding center Kendrick Perkins last season and five-time NBA champion Derek Fisher this year.

“Then when you add those veterans, it’s there,” Adelman said. “That’s where I keep saying with our group, we have a pretty good core group, but we have to add people and it doesn’t take that long.”

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