CLEVELAND – Trailing by 23 points in the third quarter and by 16 with five minutes remaining Monday, the Timberwolves’ perfect start in this short season vanished at the final horn in a 93-92 loss at Cleveland when newly crowned Western Conference Player of the Week Kevin Love’s game- winning three-point shot missed.
It’s a shot they’ll gladly take again, every night, all season long, even if Love, the NBA’s leading scorer entering Monday’s game, had missed his first six threes.
“I would, if it’s there,” Love said, soaking his feet in his bucket of ice water afterward. “My team trusts me to make that shot and more often than not, I believe I’ll make that shot.”
On Wednesday, Love squared up in the final 10 seconds of regulation time and sank a three that forced overtime and sent the Wolves toward a season-opening victory over Orlando.
On Monday, the Wolves positioned themselves to turn the franchise’s best start in 12 seasons into a 4-0 record when they wiped away three quarters of torpidity with an ending 17-2 run that came up a shot shy, one that hit the back of the rim and bounded away.
It might have been the only Wolves miss all night that went long for a team that shot short and off the mark nearly all night on legs tired — and perhaps minds worn — after withstanding the Knicks in Madison Square Garden the night before.
“You could tell we were tired,” veteran guard Kevin Martin said. “These are tough games to get: Fourth game in six nights, last one on the road. We’ll learn how to close out these games.”
Martin, the oldest Wolves player on the floor Monday, was the only whose shot didn’t show fatigue. Love didn’t make a three and Ricky Rubio missed all seven shots he attempted and sat the fourth quarter, but Martin made five threes for the second consecutive night.
“K-Mart was really the only guy who could find his legs tonight,” Love said.
The Wolves did to the Cavs what the Knicks did to them Sunday, turning a third-quarter blowout into a tense fourth quarter. That’s when the Wolves finally found some energy, with J.J. Barea rather than Rubio creating at point guard down the stretch and with a lineup that delivered defense and fast-break scoring with Love, Martin, Corey Brewer and Derrick Williams also on the court.
“We started defending them,” Wolves coach Rick Adelman said,. “We didn’t defend them the whole first half into the third quarter. Then we got active and started defending, got into the paint and started making them take jumpers instead of getting to the rim every time.”
The Wolves’ 15 fast-break points in the fourth quarter — half of their 30, their most since October 2010 — were the second-most in any quarter in franchise history.
Williams and Brewer combined for 17 points in the fourth quarter alone. The Wolves pulled the closest they had been since the first quarter after Love’s lay-in with 39 seconds left made it a one-point game. When Cavaliers All-Star guard Kyrie Irving’s short step-back shot missed, the Wolves had the ball, a timeout and 11 seconds left to win the game.
Adelman drew up a play that called for Barea to get to the rim on a pick-and-roll or kick it out and create for an open teammate. He temporarily lost control of his dribble, but got a pass off anyway to Love, who squared and fired and called himself “stunned” when his shot missed.
Love praised his team’s resiliency in winning its first three games and in losing its fourth as well. Martin said he will take his chance with Love hoisting that shot every night.
“Oh heck yeah, best power forward in the league taking that shot,” Martin said. “We’ll live with that.”