AUBURN HILLS, MICH. – The Timberwolves flew home after Thursday night’s last-second, preseason-ending 99-98 loss at Detroit confident that they will no longer be the NBA’s worst three-point shooting team this season, not by that proverbial long shot.
In Wednesday’s victory at Philadelphia, the Wolves shot 29 threes and made 15 of them, which is the second highest in any game — preseason, regular season, postseason — in franchise history.
On Thursday, they made 12 more on 33 attempts.
Even point guard Ricky Rubio made three Thursday, on six attempts. But the Pistons ultimately won thanks to Josh Smith’s desperation, bounding three-pointer at the horn.
Last season, the Wolves made only 30.5 percent of their threes. This preseason, with Kevin Love back healthy and Kevin Martin brought aboard, they made 37.6 percent and weren’t shy doing it.
“I don’t mind that if they’re good shots,” coach Rick Adelman said, referring to the 62 threes his team tried on consecutive nights. “I don’t mind that at all. We had some good looks at it. There’s where the ball is going to go.”
The ball in Adelman’s offense is going to find Martin and Love — deft shooters both — beyond the arc, and it’s going to find Rubio, too.
If Rubio makes enough to keep opposing defenses honest — and Thursday’s 15-point performance was more than that — it just might define the team’s upcoming season.
“It’d make a huge difference, it really would,” Adelman said of Rubio’s shooting. “He shot it pretty confidently tonight. Even his twos, he looked good on them. He was catching and shooting. He had good rhythm to it and he looked good doing it tonight.”
Rubio credited hard work and stronger legs after a full summer’s work and in his first full season back from knee surgery in March 2012.
“It feels better, I’ve been shooting good,” he said. “I feel comfortable and I’m going to keep shooting. I’m healthy now. I can improve on other things.”
Rubio and Love each made three threes Thursday. Guards Alexey Shved and J.J. Barea made two. Martin went 1-for-5 after shooting 50 percent (9-for-18) on threes in the Wolves’ first six preseason games.
Barea’s driving layup off the glass with 3.6 seconds left gave the Wolves a 98-96 lead before Smith heaved up a long three just before the final horn that hit the front rim and bounded high in the air and then around the rim before falling in.
Adelman praised Barea for his conditioning, shooting and play over the entire preseason.
“I’ve got to keep this rhythm up,” Barea said. “I feel great, I feel healthy. … My shot feels great. Me, everybody, if we’re open, we’ll shoot ’em. If we shoot that much, we have to make some.”
Ronny Turiaf started at center in Nikola Pekovic’s place because Pekovic suffered a bruised thigh after getting kneed Wednesday.
Pekovic wore warmups and watched from the bench, an absence Adelman termed precautionary with the season opener just six days away.
“Two days,” Pekovic said, estimating his recovery time. “It’s no big deal.”
A different look
After contemplating starting Derrick Williams, Shabazz Muhammad or again Robbie Hummel, Adelman started Dante Cunningham at small forward because of Detroit’s formidable front line of Smith, center Andre Drummond and power forward Greg Monroe.
Cunningham’s ability to play some small forward gives Adelman options when the Wolves face a big opposing frontcourt. By starting Cunningham there, he also can find time for Williams at his more natural “stretch” power forward position subbing for starter Love there.
“Dante’s going to have to play there some against certain people because he can guard those people,” Adelman said. “Tonight was a good night to try it because they are so big up front.”
• Detroit played without point guard Brandon Jennings (wisdom tooth) as well as guard Rodney Stuckey (thumb) and forward Charlie Villanueva (sore back). Veteran Chauncey Billups also didn’t play, calling the absence a “maintenance day” for his aging body.
• Wolves big man Chris Johnson didn’t play again, the fifth time in seven preseason games in which he didn’t get off the bench. He played nine-plus minutes in two games and clearly isn’t part of Adelman’s plans. The Wolves can create two roster spots for four other players competing for jobs if they waive Johnson and pay him his $916,000 guaranteed contract.