Timberwolves' playoff hopes take big hit with LaVine injury

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

“Coyote ugly” has nothing on “Timberwolf unlucky.”

A Minnesota team still hoping to end a playoff drought this spring dating back to 2004 suffered a serious blow with the loss of Zach LaVine. LaVine, 21, will miss the remainder of the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee Friday night in the Timberwolves’ lost at Detroit.

LaVine, the NBA’s reigning two-time slam dunk champion, had decided not to participate in this year’s contest at All-Star Weekend later this month in New Orleans, putting a priority on Minnesota’s quest to move up in the Western Conference standings.

“I’m never saying I won’t ever do it again, but I’m focused on this year,” LaVine told reporters last month said. “We’re getting close to being able to make the playoffs and we have that in our mind. Getting the rest and just focusing more on just the game is the main thing.”

That’s moot now, at least for LaVine, who will be focusing on rehabilitation from as-yet-unscheduled surgery. The 6-foot-5 product of UCLA injured his knee on a drive to the rim in the third quarter, falling to the court as he landed. LaVine limped to the Wolves bench but stayed in the game, and even tried to start the fourth quarter before exiting after just 37 seconds.

LaVine was averaging 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists while shooting 45.9 percent overall and 38.7 percent on 3-pointers. He led the Wolves in scoring 14 times, with four games of 30 points or more.

But LaVine missed two games last month with a left hip contusion. In the 10 games he played after returning, he averaged just 13.5 points and saw his 3-point accuracy slip to 27.5 percent. His plus/minus this season of minus-117 is Minnesota’s worst – the Wolves were minus-61 overall heading into Saturday’s home game against Memphis – yet the team had gone 13-13 in its past 26 games, after a 6-18 start. At 19-31, they were tied with Sacramento and New Orleans for 11th place but were just 3.5 games behind eighth-place Denver (22-27).

LaVine averaged 37.2 minutes, third most in the league behind Toronto’s Kyle Lowry (37.6) and Cleveland’s LeBron James (37.5), and Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau welcomed his guard’s decision to skip the dunk contest and all the preparation it requires.

“Obviously you feel for Zach,” Thibodeau said before Minnesota faced the Grizzlies to start a six-game homestand. “First and foremost just who he is as a person. Obviously what he means to our team and the type of teammate that he is. Really disappointing. He’ll respond and he’ll come back better than ever. He put so much work into the season, to have the type of season he had going, so that’s really what you feel for.”

The Wolves’ three-legged stool of 21-year-old stars now is down to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Thibodeau, who endured Derrick Rose’s repeated knee surgeries in Chicago, is coping with yet another. And Minnesota’s pursuit of the postseason just got that much tougher.