Their centerpiece's return has not solved the Minnesota Timberwolves' problems, but another key player is closer to coming back. The Milwaukee Bucks will largely have to solve their issues using the pieces already in place.
Both Minnesota and Milwaukee started the season surprisingly well but have since struggled heading into their matchup at the Target Center on Friday night.
The Timberwolves (6-8) have lost six of seven after opening 5-2 without Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. They're 1-4 since Love returned Nov. 21 after breaking his right hand in the preseason.
Love has double-doubles in all five games - he led the league with 48 last season - but is coming off his worst shooting effort. The All-Star forward went 3 of 12 from the field Wednesday, finishing with 19 points and 12 rebounds in a 101-95 road loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
He's averaging 23.0 points and 15.6 boards but hasn't been able to solve Minnesota's late-game woes. The Timberwolves have been outscored in the fourth quarter of the last five games by an average of 25.4-17.8, including 25-18 on Wednesday.
"I'm happy with how the team's been fighting," Love said. "We've just been losing some tough ones in the second half, and tonight was no different."
Minnesota learned before the game that Rubio was cleared to participate in full-contact practices. The dynamic point guard hasn't played since March 9 when he tore his ACL.
The Timberwolves have not designated a timetable for his return, but Rubio will likely see his first contact work in practice this weekend.
"We've missed him a lot," Adelman said of the former lottery pick. "Once we lost him we saw the impact he had on our group because of his leadership - and not just at the offensive end. He defended people better than most point guards."
Milwaukee (7-6) started 6-2 and still leads the Central Division but seems to be fading, having lost four of five.
The Bucks are coming off their second double-digit loss of the season, 102-88 to New York on Wednesday in Milwaukee. They're averaging 89.0 points over the last three games, compared to 101.2 through their first 10.
Milwaukee isn't being helped by 3-point shooting on either side of the floor, hitting 20.0 percent during the 1-4 slump while allowing opponents to make 40.3 percent. Mike Dunleavy is 5 for 19 from beyond the arc in that span after starting the season 18 for 33 (54.5 percent).
"We just have to play a lot better," said Dunleavy, who has failed to score in double figures in three straight games for the first time since the 2010-11 season.
"Last four or five games ... we just haven't played good basketball. We just have to be more consistent in our effort and doing what it takes to win."
Coach Scott Skiles continues to experiment with his lineup, starting a different group for the third time in three games Wednesday.
Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman has been forced to regularly juggle his lineup. He's still missing Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger due to injuries, and Andrei Kirilenko sat out Wednesday because of back spasms. Josh Howard, signed as a free agent Nov. 16, made his first start in place of Kirilenko and scored seven points.
In these teams' only meeting last season, Love had 31 points and 20 rebounds but missed a last-second 3-pointer as Minnesota lost 98-95 at Milwaukee on Dec. 27.
The Bucks have won four of five overall in this series but have dropped 10 of 12 in Minnesota.
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