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MINNEAPOLIS – Lose by a little or win by a lot: that's been the story for the Minnesota Timberwolves this season.
There's still time to move past their spats and struggles make the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, and this was a forward step.
Nikola Pekovic scored 26 points in 27 minutes and the Timberwolves blew off some steam with a 119-92 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Friday.
"We just need to have one good streak and then we're right back where we need to be," said Kevin Love, who had 19 points and 14 rebounds and rested for most of the fourth quarter.
Kevin Martin added 19 points, and Minnesota's bench had 20 points before Charlotte's reserves even got on the board late in the second quarter.
"I'm happy when we play hard, when we play to the end," said Pekovic, who also stifled former Timberwolves big man Al Jefferson on the defensive end.
Anthony Tolliver led the Bobcats with 21 points on 5-for-5 shooting from 3-point range, and Chris Douglas-Roberts scored 16 points. Jefferson finished with only eight points and seven rebounds, though, and the Bobcats were outrebounded 54-33 on their way to their seventh loss in eight games.
"Basically just kicked our butts," Jefferson said.
The Timberwolves lost on Wednesday 104-103 to Phoenix to fall to 0-10 in games decided by four points or fewer. The tension lingered into the locker room where Love, who was critical recently of a particularly paltry output by the reserves, ripped J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham for their disinterested body language at the end of the bench.
By midway through the second quarter, though, all the frustration had faded away.
"We did a good job of letting the other night go. We forgot about that already. Now we're back winning, so we've just got to keep it going," Barea said.
The Wolves posted their league-leading eighth win of 20 points or more. They're also 8-2 following those losses of four points or less.
"They want to be a good team, but they have to find out how they're going to do that," said coach Rick Adelman, who remained critical of some defensive risks and forced shots, mistakes that have contributed to the close losses.
Love set the tone with a commanding start, posting his league-leading 31st double-double before halftime. Then the backups put together one of their sharpest stretches of the season. With Chase Budinger and Ronny Turiaf finally healthy, the second unit is much stronger.
The highlight came when Cunningham blocked Kemba Walker's fast-break layup, Barea grabbed the ball, and Alexey Shved caught his outlet pass for an uncontested dunk for a 45-34 lead. That came near the end of a 20-6 run by the Wolves.
Pekovic then scored 13 straight points for the Wolves in one third-quarter, and Martin followed with a layup to push the lead to a game-high 88-57.
"If we can do it consistently, this team's going to be great," Barea said.
The Bobcats (15-22) entered the game still above the cut in the Eastern playoff chase, seeking just the second appearance in the franchise's 10 seasons. Too many more performances like this, though, and they'll have a hard time keeping up even in the far weaker of the two conferences.
For a team that went an NBA-worst 28-120 over the last two seasons, there has been clear progress under first-year coach Steve Clifford. But the Bobcats, who had allowed the second-fewest points in the league entering the night, have taken a step back on defense lately.
"You have to have a team game that's together where everybody knows what your game is, then understand that and they play it. We were doing that three weeks ago. We're not doing that right now," Clifford said.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will give them a boost soon. He missed his 18th straight game because of a broken left hand, but plan is for him to practice on Monday and play on Tuesday against New York.
NOTES: This was the first time in nearly two years the Wolves had no injured players on the roster. Luc Mbah a Moute returned from a three-game absence due to a strained left groin and played in the fourth quarter. ... The Bobcats fell to 3-11 against Western Conference teams this season. ... Jefferson wasn't the only former Timberwolves player the Bobcats brought. Tolliver, who spent two seasons here from 2010-12, went 8 for 9 from the field. "Whenever you're getting blown out by 30 or 20 or whatever, if you're shooting really well it doesn't matter," he said.