MINNEAPOLIS -- The Timberwolves made their sixth straight first-round exit from the playoffs Sunday when Dallas finished off a three-game sweep on Minnesota's home court.
Think the Wolves are getting fed up?
Yes, but they're playing the patience card again as yet another offseason begins earlier than they envisioned.
"There's disappointment, no question, but we're not going to make changes just to make changes," said coach Flip Saunders, whose team's playoff record fell to 5-18 after the Mavericks' 115-102 victory at Target Center.
"We'll sit down and evaluate everything, and we'll only do something if it'll make us better," Saunders said. "We've been through some tough times -- a lot of it's been our own doing -- but all we can do is fire back."
The Timberwolves started out looking like they'd be playing well into May. They had the league's second-best record, 30-10, just before the halfway point and still held the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference with a quarter of the season to go.
Twenty-two losses in their final 42 games was enough to tie the franchise record for regular-season wins with 50, but it left them without homecourt advantage once again for the opening round.
"It was like a tale of two seasons, man," said point guard Chauncey Billups, who stepped in for Terrell Brandon at point guard when Brandon underwent season-ending surgery on his left leg in February.
Brandon's injury didn't seem to some like it'd be that big of a deal, especially since he hasn't played a full season since 1992-93 and Minnesota went on a nine-game winning streak without him in December and January.
But the absence of Brandon's calming presence on the court and the hit his injury took on the team's depth clearly caught up with the Timberwolves by March, when they went 6-10.
"We went through a couple of tough stretches," said Wally Szczerbiak, who made the All-Star team and averaged 18.7 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting.
"We lost Terrell -- that was big."
Brandon's injury did, however, allow Billups to make some breakthroughs.
Playing all 82 games for the first time and setting a career high for minutes, Billups averaged 15.1 points per game as a starter in Brandon's absence and contributed 22 points a game on 45 percent shooting in the playoff series.
Still prone to some erratic stretches, Billups proved more willing to run and attack the basket than Brandon, who's more of a pull-up jump shooter.
"Chauncey grew up a lot," Saunders said. "He got a lot better."
The Timberwolves don't know yet how quickly Brandon can return, and that will affect their offseason.
Billups has an opt-out clause he can exercise this summer, but says he'd be OK backing up Brandon next year as long as he's still playing a lot.
"I want to be here," said Billups, who played with four teams in three years before joining Minnesota for the 2000-01 season. "I've finally got to a place where I feel comfortable. I just hope my situation doesn't change. The opportunity I got this year was priceless, man."
The Wolves are still without a first-round pick in three of the next four seasons for trying to sign Joe Smith to an illegal contract in 2000, and Kevin Garnett's $126 million contract -- two years are left on the deal -- continues to eat up lots of space under the salary cap.
Nobody in the nucleus of Garnett, Szczerbiak, Smith, Billups and center Rasho Nesterovic is older than 26, but Minnesota must find a few more consistent scorers and reliable defenders if it wants to keep up with the rest in the West.
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