By Jon Krawczynski
AP Basketball Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Kevin Love had just finished calling out two teammates for sulking on the bench while the Minnesota Timberwolves let an important game slip away to the Phoenix Suns, and Nikola Pekovic acknowledged what had become readily apparent: a team that was supposed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004 had just waded into a danger zone.
"It's a tough point for us," Pekovic said after the Wolves gave away a nine-point lead in the final 4 minutes to lose 104-103 on Wednesday night. "We have to stay together. We don't want to just let it go. We just need to turnaround to the next game and try to prepare as best for the next game and try to win the next game. That's all we can do now."
The Timberwolves met Thursday to review film of the loss and clear the air after Love delivered a sharp rebuke to J.J. Barea and Dante Cunningham for their poor body language in the fourth quarter. An originally scheduled practice was canceled, perhaps to give everyone a chance to catch their breath, collect their thoughts and avoid the media attention that was sure to engulf them after emotions ran high the night before.
The Wolves lost a precious home game to a team that is two spots ahead of them in the Western Conference playoff race, was missing perhaps its best player in guard Eric Bledsoe and was playing on the second night of a back-to-back. In the end, the Wolves (17-18) failed to climb over the .500 mark for the eighth straight time and fell to a staggering 0-10 in games decided by four points or less.
"We can't have any more of these," said Love, who had 15 points on 4-for-20 shooting and 12 rebounds. "These are terrible. Dallas loses tonight and we beat (the Suns), we're looking like we're in good position if we win a few more here, string a few together in a row. We've had very tough ones. Last three we've lost have been very tough, the last four, really. It's just time."
Love has been critical of the second unit's inconsistency before, but he was more direct than he has ever been in his young career after watching Barea and Cunningham sulk Wednesday. Love didn't name them, but the evidence was palpable.
"We've just all got to be on the same page 1-15," Love said. "It's tough when you see that."
Calling teammates out can be a delicate proposition, and the 25-year-old Love is starting to use his status as one of the league's best players as the impetus for trying to become the leader this young and inexperienced team desperately needs. He missed all but 18 games last year because of hand and knee injuries, and wasn't always a visible presence with the team down the stretch. That has made it more of a challenge for him to assert himself with his teammates now that he is healthy.
But he believes that if this team is going to get over the hump as the season approaches the halfway point, he has to start holding his teammates accountable.
"That's the next step," said former All-Star Grant Hill, who recently sat down with Love for an interview for NBATV's "Inside Stuff." ''You have to sometimes say things and do things that people may not want to hear or are unpopular or make people uncomfortable. That's part of being a leader. It's a huge responsibility."
The Wolves host the Charlotte Bobcats on Friday night, which will be the first test of whether Love's words had the desired effect. Love said he is encouraged by the returns of Ronny Turiaf and Chase Budinger to bolster the Wolves bench and made clear there is still plenty of time to get things turned around.
The frustrations were high and so is the urgency after yet another close loss. The Wolves are currently 10th place in the West, three spots behind those surprising Suns (21-13).
"It's frustrating that happens over and over again, especially with teams like Phoenix," point guard Ricky Rubio said. "They're right there. We want to close that gap and instead of doing that, we just throw the game away and make it bigger."