Andrew Unterberger, Mr. 30 Arenas in 60 Days, went to a Timberwolves-Clippers game on purpose. He lived to tell his tale…

“You’ll be happy to know that no one in the Twin Cities is talking about the Timberwolves,” my friend REL told me as I called him to tell him I’d be coming to Minneapolis for a game at the Target Center. It seemed a fitting way as any to essentially end the first leg of my trip — after this one I head out West, never to return up north — with one more truly lousy team playing for one more truly sub-par home crowd. After eight games, the home teams of my trip were a combined 2-6, and only two (arguably three) of the crowds for the games were even respectably average-sized. And so, the logical climax — Timberwolves vs. Clippers on a Wednesday night at the Target Center. I was kinda pumped, personally.

Unfortunately, this was the first game that I had to miss a significant chunk of — I forgot that REL is maybe the only person I’ve ever met with a less reliable sense of direction and time than myself, and between the two of us, we managed to show up a half-hour late to a stadium ten minutes away. It wasn’t for naught, though — I got to try a Juicy Lucy-type burger at a local bar, which somehow managed to live up to its conceptually-flawless promise, and I also got to walk to the Center from our parking lot via Skyway, which gave me a much greater understanding of the Replacements song of the same name. (I had always envisioned it as an actual transportational device, though, like some sort of monorail/cable-car hybrid, rather than just a glorified indoor bridge. Oh well.)

The Stadium: Like the Air Canada Center, the Target Center was part of an entire metropolitan downtown complex thing, surrounded by shops and movie theaters and restaurants (Hard Rock Cafe!!) and the like. It’s a pretty nice area, though I kinda felt that the arena got swallowed up inside of it — I was walking outside the perimeter with REL after the game to try to get an exterior shot of the stadium, but it took us a long time to find any sort of demarcation identifying the building as the Target Center. With the Twins’ state-of-the-art new stadium, Target Field, just a couple blocks over, it further emphasized just what an afterthought this arena seemed to be for the city. ‘

Once there, the arena staff did an impressive job of trying to keep the sparsely-attended building entertained. One employee walked around the floor attached to a basketball hoop that people tried to throw something (t-shirts?) in, while another engaged various students in “College Night” (every Wednesday, apparently) activities. The best part of that was probably the Pepsi-chugging competition — one guy was total amateur hour, needing multiple gulps to get it all down (just breathe through your nose, rook) while the eventual winner did it in one, but had that unmistakable look of “What exactly have I been doing with my life that led me to this moment?” regret after his victory. It was as impressively close to the real thing that you could get without using actual alcohol.

The Game: Most of the game was a battle of wills between two of the NBA’s most unique young big men, the Clippers’ Blake Griffin and the Wolves’ Kevin Love. Griffin was stunning in his grace and athleticism around the basket, Love mostly in his lack thereof — while Griffin exploded to the hoop and scored with authority, Love just kinda showed up inconspicuously, like he had always been there, and scored sneakily, as if he was hoping to get his points before anyone even noticed his presence. Griffin’s highlight for the game was a thunderously cruel posterization of Anthony Tolliver (lord, he just kind of punched the ball through the basket), while Love’s highlight … I think he might have had an and-one off an offensive board or something? I dunno. (He must’ve done something notably good at some point, because the music director played Huey Lewis and the News’s “The Power of Love” for it — cute.)

Surprisingly, though — for me, at least — the game was totally stolen by the Wolves’ burgeoning scoring machine, Michael Beasley. Averaging 32.5 points a game over his last four, Be Easy continued his breakout week-plus with a second half in which he seemed thoroughly unable to miss a jumper, scoring with impunity from all around the court. It was one of the real highlights of my trip thus far to see a player like Beasley, enduring such frustration as a supporting player for two years in Miami, be given the liberation of free reign in Minnesota. Not only did he take all the big shots, and not only did he make the great majority of them, but his swaggering after the makes was unparalleled — his immaculate and oft-repeated post-dagger strut (“Man, he really likes to pump his chest,” commented REL) bore the unmistakable signature of a True Scorer. After one of his big hits, Beas was so pumped that he was clapping along to the “EVE-RY BO-DY CLAP YOUR HANDS!!” chant while getting back on defense. Hope the good times last for the guy, I really do.

Even with the efforts of Beasley (33 points, 7 rebounds), Love (24 points, 14 rebounds) and even oft-maligned big man Darko Milicic (11 points, 3 blocks, and a filthy spin-move dunk on Griffin that really, really should’ve been the other way around), the Wolves allowed the Clippers to creep back into the game in the final minutes, and with the score tied with 45 seconds to go, it looked like the Wolves might be headed for another humiliating loss to a bad team in a game they had squarely in hand. But the Wolves got the ball to their magic man at the top of the key with 20 seconds to go, and Beasley found twine on a short pull-up jumper with just two seconds to go. The Clips’ go-ahead three attempt rimmed out at the other end, and the clock expired. Final score: Timberwolves 113, Clippers 111. Easily the most suspenseful game of the trip so far.

The Fans: The attendance … was not great. We showed up with about a minute left in the first quarter, and it still looked like the crowd was just starting to fill in to watch warm-ups — whole lotta empty blue and green seats out there. Those that were there — especially in the rows behind me, season ticket holders — were respectably active, rocking an array of Wolves jerseys and yelling out at the players when appropriate. (Many were displeased with the poor passing in the fourth, and of rookie Wesley Johnson’s performance throughout.) The arena certainly gave Beasley his propers when he started killing in the fourth quarter — probably a good thing, considering his vamping would’ve seemed slightly obnoxious in front of a sedate audience.

The couple of fans I talked to seemed optimistic about the team’s future — or at least optimistic that the team had a future. “We’re better than last year,” said Mike, a fan in the row in front of me. “We got a couple of players that are gonna help us.” Diane, one of the season-ticket holders in back of me, agreed they were heading in the right direction. “We’ve got a lot of young players with a lot of energy,” she said. “They don’t quit.” Mike and Diane held a lot of the same opinions about the individual players — they were unwaveringly pro-Beasley (Mike: “He’s gonna be our best player), unimpressed with Jonny Flynn (Diane: “A real disappointment”) and unconcerned with Ricky Rubio (Diane: “I’m not counting on [him coming over].”)

Most interesting to me, though, was that both of them were in favor of the Al Jefferson trade — a debate that I hadn’t even previously considered that there was a “pro” side to. “I loved it,” said Mike. “He just slowed down the offense.” Well, could you have gotten more for him, at least? “Not really … he was coming off injury.” Diane was similarly uncharitable, though she at least seemed to feel a little guilty for throwing Big Al under the bus. “He’s lazy. He played no defense. He’d just back up and watch ‘em drive in.” Well, David Kahn might not have many supporters on the Internet, but at least the Target Center faithful seem to feel him OK. (I didn’t have the heart to ask them about Darko and the Chris Webber interview, though.)

Most Popular Jerseys: Easily Kevin Love for the currents, super-easily Kevin Garnett for the retros. The best jersey of the night had to go to one of the guys REL and I passed in the Skyway to the stadium, wearing a Pistons #31 Milicic jersey. I can’t believe that the NBA didn’t track every last one of those down to make absolutely sure they were disposed of.

Also Worth Noting: I had previously mentioned my dismay over the Nets’ woefully inaccurate “Make Some Noise!!” meters, so in the interest of fairness, I should probably point out that Target Center’s Howl-O-Meter was the most honest reflection of fan vocal response I’ve ever seen on a Jumbo. Shown every time the opposing team shot free throws (home fans were supposed to howl I guess, few actually did), the meter very rarely eclipsed the halfway mark, and often just kinda hovered in the lower regions before disappearing. This is probably because the graphic wasn’t on screen long enough for the reading to make its slow rise to the meter’s height, but still, it felt refreshingly plausible to me.

Swag Acquired: A Kevin Love home replica jersey, for the very reasonable price of $25. “It’s a Timberwolves Win discount,” the fan behind me in line joked. “It doesn’t happen very often.”

Sirius/XM Jam of the Day:

Black Keys – “Howlin’ for You” (Alt Nation, XM 47). I never thought I’d see the Black Keys as anything more than mediocre blues-rock, but first “Tighten Up,” and now this sinewy, sinful number. Comparisons to Howlin’ Wolf extend beyond the title (somewhat, anyway), and that’s pretty cool.

Three days now for me to make the considerable drive out to Portland, to see Blazers-Jazz at the garden on the 20th. Wish me luck, and talk to you guys next week.