MINNEAPOLIS — After a strong start to the season, the Atlanta Hawks never thought they’d be in a fight to make the playoffs when April came rolling around.
If they don’t find a way to stop the tumble they’ve been on before March closes, they could find themselves on the outside looking in.
Gorgui Dieng had 15 points and 15 rebounds to continue his out-of-nowhere emergence, and the Minnesota Timberwolves dealt the slumping Hawks another costly loss with a 107-83 victory.
“I think to a certain degree each guy has just got to find it in him,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “And I think the group has got to find the energy that the group can build. We’ve spent most of this season playing with very good energy, so I think there’s a lot of things we can pull on an reference to how we want to play and tonight would not be one of those nights.”
Paul Millsap had 12 points and 10 rebounds for Atlanta (31-39), which has lost four straight and has the New York Knicks right in their rearview mirror for the eighth and final playoff spot. Jeff Teague, who had averaged more than 23 points over the previous four games, went scoreless for the first time this season on 0-for-5 shooting.
“I think we just didn’t come ready to play,” Hawks guard DeMarre Carroll said. “Once we started missing a lot of shots, then we lost our focus. At this time of year, you can’t lose your focus.”
Corey Brewer and Kevin Martin each scored 18 points and Kevin Love had 14 points and 12 rebounds for the Timberwolves. Minnesota scored 32 points off 26 Hawks turnovers and blew the game open in the second half.
The struggling Wolves defense held Atlanta to 37.8 percent shooting and had six of its 17 steals in the third quarter to start pulling away.
With starting center Nikola Pekovic out for the sixth straight game, Wolves coach Rick Adelman had no choice but to thrust the rookie Dieng into the first significant minutes of his career. Dieng has flourished with the added responsibility, posting double-doubles in five of the six games. He had 10 points and 13 rebounds in the first half, helping the Wolves weather an unusually quiet night from Love.
“I don’t care what the record is or where we are in the season, we’re trying to make them believe that we still have work to do,” Wolves coach Rick Adelman said. “We still have to get better as a team and as individuals.”
The last time these two teams met, on Feb. 1, the Hawks overcame 43 points and 19 rebounds from Love to win for the fifth time in seven games. That put them at 25-22 and in third place in the Eastern Conference. But the
Hawks have gone 6-17 since then, a slide exacerbated by injuries to Gustavo Ayon and Kyle Korver, who missed his fourth straight game with back spasms.
Atlanta’s crumbling, combined with a surprising surge from the Knicks, turned a playoff spot that once appeared to be a foregone conclusion into anything but a sure thing. They led the ninth-place Knicks by three games for the final spot in the muddled East.
And yet on Wednesday night it was the Wolves, who have essentially been out of the Western Conference playoff race for about two weeks and were completely deflated after a home loss to the Suns on Sunday, who played with the urgency and tenacity on defense of a team that needs every win it can get.
“We needed a game like this in order to get our spirits up,” Love said. “It was good for us. It goes to show you we’re down, but we’re not out.”
The Hawks had won five straight games after an ugly string of 14 losses in 15 games. But they dropped games to the Pelicans, Raptors, Suns and Wolves to allow the Knicks to creep back into the race.
“We’re a close team,” Hawks forward Mike Scott said. “We’ve been through a slump before. It’s not good at all. But we know how to do good things, we’re professionals and we’re going to stick together.”
NOTES: Ricky Rubio had four points on 1-for-6 shooting, but he also had 10 assists and six steals. He had to leave in the first quarter to get 15 stitches in his upper lip after a collision with Hawks forward Mike Scott. ... Hawks F Mike Muscala, who played in high school in the Minneapolis suburb of Roseville, had eight points and four rebounds in 23 minutes.