MINNEAPOLIS -- Rookie Kevin Love was dressing somberly in the Timberwolves locker room, his back to a group of reporters getting ready to ask him about four crucial misses from the free throw line down the stretch against Utah on Tuesday night.
Then new coach Kevin McHale came up and gave him a hearty pat on the back and a nurturing squeeze of the neck, letting the 20-year-old know that all was not lost. Just one game.
"I told him we're going to be in a lot of battles and I'll go to battle with him any day of the week," McHale said after the Wolves lost 99-96 to the Jazz in his debut as coach.
And that appears to be the difference between the team's new coach and the fired Randy Wittman.
The young Timberwolves staggered to a 4-15 start under the hard-nosed Wittman, including a lifeless 23-point loss to the dysfunctional Clippers on Saturday night. On Monday, owner Glen Taylor fired Wittman, stripped McHale of his vice president of basketball operations title and installed the Hall of Famer as coach of the down-and-out team he assembled.
For one game, at least, McHale seemed to inject some energy and heart into a team that has lacked both since a six-game losing streak started nine days ago.
"When I turned the ball over, I'm so used to coming out of the game," guard Rashad McCants said. "Then I looked over and saw him clapping and saying, 'Come on, get the next one.' It gives you confidence."
Next on McHale's agenda should be teaching them how to shoot free throws.
Mehmet Okur hit the go-ahead shot with 1.7 seconds to play and the Jazz capitalized on 16 missed free throws by Minnesota to rally for the victory.
Al Jefferson led Minnesota with 21 points. The Timberwolves led by seven with 2:45 to play, but Love's misses in the final three minutes allowed the Jazz to hang around.
Kyle Korver buried a 3-pointer from the elbow to give Utah a 95-94 lead with 54 seconds to go. After two free throws from Randy Foye gave the Wolves the lead again with 7.8 seconds left, Okur swished a fallaway jumper from 11 feet to put the Jazz on top for good.
Ronnie Brewer scored 25 points for the Jazz on the 20th anniversary of Jerry Sloan's promotion to the team's head coach.
After the back-and-forth game, Sloan was asked if he has another 20 years left in him.
"Twenty more years?" Sloan quipped. "I don't know about 20 more minutes."
By contrast, the Timberwolves have changed coaches four times in the last four years. Their latest move was the 223rd coaching change in the NBA since Sloan became coach of the Jazz on Dec. 9, 1988.
In that time, Sloan has enjoyed an unprecedented level of job security in a league where seven of the nine winners of the Coach of the Year Award this century have been either fired or pushed out the door.
Sloan celebrated the achievement the way he celebrates most of his accomplishments, with a humble shrug and a dismissive wave.
"Anybody could be in this position," he said. "I've had good players."
McHale has actually been the coach of the Timberwolves twice now during Sloan's tenure in Utah. He took over for the fired Flip Saunders in 2005 and led the Wolves to a 19-12 finish.
He spent most of his time encouraging and prodding a young team that he said looked "beaten down" with a "black cloud hanging over it" after losing by a combined 52 points in the previous two games.
Love finished with eight points and 15 rebounds, but went 2-for-9 from the free throw line.
"I was proud of the guys," McHale said. "It's been a tumultuos couple of days as you can imagine."
Okur finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds, while Paul Millsap had 15 points and 10 boards.
"We're trying to win as many games as we possibly can, especially on the road," Brewer said. "We struggled. Even though this was a big night for Jerry, it was a big night for the team. You've got to win."
|Kevin McHale will have to wait for his first win in his second stint as head coach. (AP)|
|Utah (14-9) «||32||14||29||24||99|
|UTA:R. Brewer 25 Pts
UTA:M. Okur 13 Reb
UTA:D. Williams 11 Ast
|MIN:A. Jefferson 21 Pts
MIN:K. Love 15 Reb
MIN:R. Gomes 4 Ast
|Players of the Game|
|M. Okur, C||40||8-17||3-5||13||4||3||21|
|D. Williams, PG||37||2-11||8-8||1||11||1||12|
|R. Brewer, SG||37||8-12||9-11||5||2||3||25|
|P. Millsap, PF||33||5-7||5-6||10||3||5||15|
|C. Miles, SG||16||2-3||0-0||0||1||4||5|
|A. Kirilenko, SF||22||2-10||3-3||5||1||4||7|
|K. Korver, SF||21||2-4||1-2||4||1||3||6|
|M. Almond, SG||13||1-3||2-2||1||0||3||4|
|B. Knight, PG||11||1-1||0-0||0||0||3||2|
|K. Koufos, C||6||1-1||0-0||0||0||1||2|
|M. Harpring, SF||4||0-0||0-0||1||0||0||0|
|J. Collins, C||Did Not Play|
|C. Boozer, PF||Did Not Play|
|R. Price, PG||Did Not Play|
|K. Fesenko, C||Did Not Play|
|Complete Box Score|
|A. Jefferson, PF||39||8-20||5-8||7||1||5||21|
|R. Foye, PG||37||4-11||8-8||3||4||5||17|
|R. Gomes, PF||34||6-12||2-4||4||4||6||14|
|C. Smith, PF||26||6-8||3-6||5||2||1||15|
|R. McCants, SG||24||2-12||4-4||3||2||3||8|
|K. Love, PF||27||3-9||2-9||15||1||4||8|
|K. Ollie, PG||26||2-5||3-4||2||0||4||7|
|R. Carney, SF||14||2-4||0-0||1||0||1||6|
|S. Telfair, PG||10||0-1||0-0||3||1||2||0|
|B. Cardinal, PF||4||0-0||0-0||0||0||0||0|
|C. Booth, C||Did Not Play|
|M. Madsen, PF||Did Not Play|
|M. Miller, SF||Did Not Play|
|J. Collins, C||Did Not Play|
|C. Brewer, SF||Did Not Play|
|Complete Box Score|