Wolves become road scholars

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 12, 2012 - 12:04 AM

The Wolves bemoan the timing but must make hay on this exodus

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Get ready to see Kevin Love and his teammates in their uniforms for the next couple of weeks.

Photo: Lynne Sladky, Associated Press - Ap

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David Kahn cannot repeat what he first thought when he gazed upon the Timberwolves' post-lockout schedule and what would happen in March.

"I don't think you want to print that," said Kahn, the team's president of basketball operations. "Seriously."

Here's what he saw: Travel, and lots of it.

Sunday the Wolves boarded a plane for Phoenix, the jumping-off point for a seven-game, two-week road trip -- tied for the longest in franchise history -- that will approach 6,000 miles in length. And that road only got harder in the wake of Ricky Rubio's season-ending knee surgery. On Saturday, one day after Rubio's left knee buckled in the waning moments of the team's loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Wolves sleepwalked through a loss to lowly New Orleans.

Was that a sign of things to come, or a team playing after taking an emotional punch to the gut? We'll find out quickly.

By the time this trip is over, the Wolves likely will know whether their goal of making the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons is realistic.

"It's a big deal," Kevin Love said after Saturday's game. "We have to play well on the road, at least be .500. And it all starts in Phoenix. This is very big for us, because we're not coming back for a long time. I hate to put more pressure on us, but this is make-it or break-it time."

And it has to happen amid constant travel, flights and late check-ins.

"The toughest challenge is staying fresh," Wolves assistant coach Terry Porter said. "But look at this trip, at the teams we're playing."

State tournament squeeze

Look at the bigger picture, and it's even worse. Coming out of the All-Star break the Wolves played a pair of games in Los Angeles against the Clippers and Lakers. From those two games at the end of February through the first two days of April, the Wolves' schedule has 21 games, 15 on the road. Sunday night the Wolves ended a four-game homestand at 2-2. There are only two more home games between now and early April.

The culprit? State tournaments and the compressed schedule, according to Kahn. Target Center is the home for the state basketball tournaments each March. That doesn't change. But the post-lockout schedule did. The original schedule had the Wolves on the road for five games in mid-March. But with games getting jammed together, that became seven games played in 12 days with two back-to-backs.

"It is my understanding that, going forward, we have remedied the situation," Kahn said. "I think next year we have made certain that the trip will be broken up, with at least a single game, between the road games."

A valuable layover

But that doesn't help right now.

The good news? After the Phoenix game March 12, the team will have two days off before its game in Utah. The team will stay in Arizona until Wednesday. But then the team plays four games in five nights.

By that point the team needs to have adjusted to playing without Rubio. Saturday, both pre- and postgame, coach Rick Adelman and the players all said the team should continue to contend for a playoff spot.

That will take work. "We have to figure out how we're going to be efficient offensively in a different way," Adelman said.

That will mean getting the ball moving and finding open shots without Rubio. J.J. Barea could return from a sprained ankle to play in Phoenix.

"If we're going to maintain and be near [the playoffs], we're going to have to win on the road," Adelman said. "It makes no difference who we have, we have to win on the road and the first game is Phoenix. We have to respond. We have to have a signature about this team, a statement that we're going to play hard and if they beat you they beat you."

Adelman said the key to a good road trip is a strong start. "I think if your success starts early in a trip -- if you win a couple -- everything takes care of itself," he said.

The Wolves, like all teams, travel via charter, which makes things a lot easier. Still, such a long trip poses challenges.

"Sometimes you don't know where you are," Barea said. "You get in the elevator and you don't know what room you're in. You wake up at night and don't know what city you're in.''

It's part of the job. "You have to be prepared," said Love, who noted that his time playing with the national team in Europe helped him prepare for NBA road trips. "You have to get your head wrapped around it ahead of time, be ready to go. Discipline is a big part of it. Stay in your room, get some rest, get your sleep. That is big."

And the stakes are high. "It's really going to define our season," rookie Derrick Williams said. "We've got seven tough games, and if we come out strong and play like we know how to play, we can be right there in that playoff hunt."

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