OKLAHOMA CITY – Somebody asked Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman before Saturday’s loss at Atlanta what he would do if battered and bruised All-Star Kevin Love couldn’t play that night and after saying he didn’t know, Adelman suggested dryly, “Fly home?”
Adelman chose a different option Wednesday when that scenario came true in a 106-97 loss at Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City.
Missing his entire starting front line, Adelman plugged Luc Mbah a Moute, Dante Cunningham and Ronny Turiaf in for Love, injured Nikola Pekovic (ankle bursitis) and absent Corey Brewer (son’s birth) and hoped for the best.
That meant a competitive game until third quarter’s end, when a Thunder team missing Russell Westbrook, but steaming toward the West’s best record regardless, pulled away.
“I couldn’t be prouder the way they competed,” Adelman said about his team. “What it showed was, these guys compete. They weren’t afraid to go out there and play with three starters out. It gave the other guys an opportunity play.”
And so Adelman played everyone from Cunningham’s 42-plus minutes to varying roles for seldom-used Robbie Hummel, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad and A.J. Price, in a game where the Wolves gave the Thunder a gift three-pointer at third quarter’s end that it used to transform a tied game.
Adelman believed Love would play until the team finished its pregame meeting about 20 minutes before the opening tip. Adelman said that’s when Love told the team’s medical trainer he couldn’t play because of a stiff neck suffered when his head whipped back during a scary fall late in Tuesday’s home victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Love received extra treatment on his neck Wednesday until he decided he couldn’t play. He declined comment after the game.
“I thought he was going to play the whole time,” Adelman said. “But his neck and his whole body is pretty stiff, so it didn’t surprise me.”
Adelman told Cunningham that it was next man up.
“He said I was going to play, about 48 minutes jokingly,” Cunningham said. “But I guess it was for real.”
Cunningham made nine of 13 shots and scored 18 points, one fewer than Ricky Rubio did. Rubio shot 6-for-12 from the floor — that’s often about a week’s worth of shots for the pass-first, shoot-last point guard.
“I think everyone got their week’s worth of shots up tonight,” Cunningham said.
With the team’s entire starting frontcourt out, Cunningham and Rubio stepped forth, keeping the Wolves in the game until late in the third quarter, when it was tied 77-77.
“Without them, there are more shots and you have to take more responsibility and you just have to attack,” Rubio said.
When asked if he needs to more often assert himself offensively like he did Wednesday, Rubio said: “I mean, sometimes. But I’m the point guard, I’m the guy who has to get my teammates playing.”
He and his teammates stayed close until Dieng reached for Derek Fisher’s long, missed three-pointer at third quarter’s end and tipped it into the basket, incurring a goaltending call on a rookie’s mistake that turned a tie score into an 80-77 Thunder lead.
When Jeremy Lamb opened the fourth quarter with a real made three-pointer, Oklahoma City led by six, and the Wolves never got any closer than that again while the Thunder built its lead back to as many as 13.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks called Fisher’s helped three-pointer the “big momentum” that turned the game.
“That’s something you never know,” Rubio said. “But it was a three-point play, which you have to forget and keep going.”