Feb 1, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks power forward Gustavo Ayon (14) fouls Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love (42) in the first quarter at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Game Preview: Wolves (34-35) vs. Hawks (31-38)

Ah, the East-West dichotomy once again.

The Wolves will square off against another team with a worse record than them, but their opponent is also a likely playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Indeed, it is what it is. But that doesn’t mean that it’s any less jarring when you come across it time after time.

Minnesota will be trying to avoid falling back into the doldrums of the March and April blues that we’ve all become so accustomed to over the past decade of Timberwolves sad-sketball. And in reality, it shouldn’t be all that depressing.

Kevin Love is a top-five NBA player. Ricky Rubio is enjoying his best season as a pro, which includes an increasingly encouraging stretch of play since last month’s All-Star Break. Gorgui Dieng is flourishing in a starting role due to injuries to veterans Nikola Pekoivc and Ronny Turiaf. And fellow first-round pick Shabazz Muhammad has come on strong in still-limited play over the past couple months.

It’s the fringey, supposed-to-be-rotation  players that have fallen off and provided the most disdain for the team of late. The J.J. Bareas, Chase Budingers, and Dante Cunninghams of the world. Not to mention the disappearance of such characters as Alexey Shved and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.

Even Kevin Martin, who was certainly counted upon to be more than a “fringe rotation player”, has struggled of late. The point totals are nice, certainly, but the efficiency and effort is down from where it was back in November and December.

Barea is having easily his worst season as a pro, discounting his season that was largely lost to injury a couple of years ago. Part of this is certainly having to play almost exclusively point guard, whereas last year he was able to man the back court in tandem with both Luke Ridnour and Rubio, allowing him to play off the ball on a regular basis.

Budinger has been so terrible that he incurred a DNP-CD less than a week ago, his first in his Wolves career. There’s plenty of hope that he’ll continue to get past his knee problems, and once his legs are entirely beneath him he’ll regain his above-average long-range jumper, if not his world-class athleticism and leaping ability.

The larger issue is trying to decipher whether this year’s underachievement can be attributed to unfamiliarity of the players (two of the top rotation players were not with the organization last year in Brewer and Martin, and others, like Budinger, barely played in 2012-13 due to injury), or simply because of roster construction/lack of talent and fit.

It’s always a moving target, and absolutely a gamble for Flip Saunders. He has to bet on one or the other, and he better be right, given the immediateness of Kevin Love’s contract situation.

We’ll unpack this quite a bit more moving forward, but let’s just say that it’ll be interesting to see how Saunders maneuvers his way around the situation and the morass of contracts that he’s acquired. And let’s hope that the Wolves can hold it together well enough to manage a .500+ record. They need to at least make that step forward.

Tonight’s game should be a win, as the Hawks have been in somewhat of a spiral since the Al Horford season-ending injury multiple weeks ago. They’re still holding onto a three-game lead over the New York Knicks for the final playoff spot and the right to lose to either Indiana or Miami in the first round of the playoffs in about a month’s time.

The Wolves match-up okay with the Hawks, but not having Pekovic certainly hurts in this particular game. They’ll need Love to play better than he did on Monday night, obviously, but it’s a contest that we should expect the home team to pull out with relative ease.

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Tags: Kevin Love Minnesota Timberwolves Nikola Pekovic Ricky Rubio

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