MINNEAPOLIS – Kevin Love is usually one of the last Minnesota Timberwolves to be interviewed after a game, preferring first to collect his thoughts as he goes through a treatment regimen that includes an extended dip in an icy cold tub that helps his body recover from the beating it takes on a nightly basis.
This time, Love was waiting for the media who trudged into the locker room after the Timberwolves' latest gut punch of a loss, a 104-103 defeat to the Phoenix Suns. This time, he had a message to deliver, and it wasn't pretty.
"We can't have two guys sitting at the end of the bench that play good minutes just sitting there and not getting up during timeouts," Love said, referring to the poor body language exhibited by veterans J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham in the fourth quarter. "We all need to be in this together. That kind of (ticks) me off. We're supposed to be a team."
The Timberwolves (17-18) are anything but a team right now. They are a collection of individual agendas tripping each other up as the franchise pursues its first playoff bid since 2004.
It may only be January. There may still be more than half of the season left to play and key reserves Chase Budinger and Ronny Turiaf may have just returned to help bolster a beleaguered bench.
But all of that perspective and promise was nowhere to be found in the Wolves' locker room on Wednesday night, when a crackling tension threatened to break the team apart. In speaking out, Love was trying to be the leader this young and inexperienced team desperately needs. He was trying to light a fire, as he often says, to motivate two vital teammates and get them to recognize the poor image they were projecting by pouting over their lack of playing time.
"It's two guys that we expect more from them," Love said. "I think they expect more from themselves. I'm not trying to single anybody out and I don't want to make it bigger than it is, but it's just a team that we needed to beat tonight and we needed everybody in there, even guys that didn't play any minutes. We need to have a team and a bench that's really in it together."
Love didn't call out either player by name, but one look at the end of the bench at any point in the fourth quarter made the targets of his ire obvious.
Barea and Cunningham both were gone by the time Love made his comments. But it's likely not going to sit well, especially with Barea, who took exception earlier this month when Love criticized the struggles of the second unit.
That Love torched the two veterans coming off of a game in which the star power forward was just 4 for 20 from the field and 0 for 3 in the fourth quarter — when the Wolves threw away nine-point lead with 4:31 to play — only made his decision to publicly go at his teammates a riskier endeavor.
Part of Love's frustration is rooted in last year's misery. He played just 18 games because of a twice-broken hand and a knee injury and drew criticism from inside the locker room and out for not being a visible presence with the team down the stretch. When Love saw Barea and Cunningham putting themselves before the team as Love had been accused of doing last year, he bristled.
"Those two guys, if and when I did that last year when maybe I didn't sit out (behind the bench) for the game for all 48 minutes and so on and so forth, they would have killed me," Love said. "They would've aired me out. That's tough."
It also speaks to the desperation that is creeping into the team's psyche. The Timberwolves haven't been over .500 since Nov. 23, having failed eight straight times to get over that hump since then. They are 0-10 in games decided by four points or fewer, a troubling stat for a team that is trying to keep pace in the hyper-competitive Western Conference.
Love is in the middle of a phenomenal individual season, having entered the game against the Suns second in the league in scoring (26.4 points per game) and rebounding (13.3). But in terms of his standing in the locker room, he is still trying to regain the respect he had before the difficulties of last season. His missive on Wednesday night may not expedite that process.
"Everybody has to believe," point guard Ricky Rubio said. "Of course somebody maybe is frustrated because he didn't have the minutes that he wanted or he's not in the game in late situations. But something happened, and no matter what, it's coach's decision. You have to be with the team.
"I didn't see that. But if he says he saw something, we would have to talk because that's even worse than losing the game. Not having the team together, that's terrible. We have to be a team and believe in ourselves."
Many in Minnesota have worried about losing Love, who can opt out of his contract in the summer of 2015, to a big-market team. Comments like the ones he delivered on Wednesday night won't ease those concerns. Both Timberwolves President Flip Saunders and Love have expressed optimism about his future in Minnesota.
As temperatures outside Target Center plunged to 15-below zero on Wednesday night, this summer seemed so far away, let alone July 2015. So much can happen between now and then, for better or worse.
The focus now is squarely on the significant issues of the present. And as bad as things appeared on Wednesday night, Love said that he is confident they can turn things around.
"There's still a lot of time," Love said. "We need to win games like this. That makes us 0-10 now in games decided by four points or less. So something's got to give and if we continue to keep working hard and have continuity and stick together, we're going to be all OK."
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