The game was over, a flight to Memphis was looming, and yet Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, still in their uniforms, sat in front of their locker room stalls in Target Center, staring straight ahead, saying nothing.
This one hurt. This one stung. In a season of blown leads and missed opportunities, this one will be remembered.
The Wolves, hosting a team ahead of them in the Western Conference standings, were up 22 points in the first half and led by 10 entering the fourth quarter, before collapsing in a devastating 127-120 loss to the Phoenix Suns that all but ended talk of playoff possibilities.
The Wolves scored 41 in the first quarter for the fourth time this season. They scored a season-high 73 points in the first half. They were at 100 points before the fourth quarter began.
None of it mattered.
“They’re ahead of us [in the standings], obviously,” Love said. “We looked at that like this was our playoffs right there, and we lost. So this one hurts a lot more than the others.”
The loss came despite a 36-point, 14-rebound, nine-assist effort by Love, 25 points by Kevin Martin and 19 points and nine assists from Rubio. The Wolves have lost two consecutive and have dropped back to .500.
In the end, it was Phoenix that persevered. Markieff Morris came off the bench to score 25 points for the Suns (41-29), outscoring the entire Wolves bench by five points. Eric Bledsoe had 21 points, P.J. Tucker 19 and Goran Dragic 18. Phoenix shot 57.5 percent, hit on 12 of 27 three-pointers and edged the Wolves in points off the break, in rebounding and second-chance points.
And the bottom line is that this might have been Minnesota’s last chance.
The Wolves still led by 10 entering the fourth quarter, when coach Rick Adelman was forced to give Love a break. Suns coach Jeff Hornacek came out with a small lineup to start the quarter, and Adelman responded with a lineup of starters Rubio and Corey Brewer along with Shabazz Muhammad, J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham.
Less than 5 minutes later, that lead was gone.
The Suns started the quarter committed three turnovers and missed their first eight shots. Adelman put Love and Martin back in with the Wolves up two with 8:02 left. But, moments later, Dragic hit a step-back three-pointer to give the Suns their first lead since early in the first quarter.
The two teams went back and forth until Love’s three-pointer and Rubio’s two free throws with 1:56 left gave the Wolves a 118-115 lead. But the Suns scored the next seven points.
“We had a different lineup [to start the fourth], tried to look at something new,” Love said. “We just have to start fourth quarters better.”
And again the Wolves were left to wonder how a team that can score 41, 32 and 30 points over the first three quarters can be doubled up 34-17 in the fourth.
“We started the game very well,” Rubio said. “But as the game went on — especially the last quarter — we couldn’t finish it.’’
Said Adelman: “We had the lead and we couldn’t get a stop.’’
The Wolves shot 5-for-21 in the final 12 minutes, allowing the Suns to get out on the break and to the rim with ease. The result was yet another lost opportunity.
Asked if this was as frustrated as he’s been this season, Love said, “No question. We should have won that game, plain and simple.”