The first half of the season for the Timberwolves didn’t exactly pan out as it was anticipated to be. The team is very much mired in the natural ebbs and flows you’d expect from a young roster and a new coaching regime; although, more ebbs than anything.
There's the woes of the reserve players, KAT trying to take over games at unnecessary times, Thibs not being able to figure out how to utilize Rubio efficiently, and of course, all culminating in the loss of Zach LaVine for at least the rest of the season.
Things were really starting to look up for the Wolves, as they stood at 8-7 in the month of January just before LaVine went down. LaVine was also, arguably, the Wolves most consistent player throughout this season, averaging 18 points and 3 assist a game.
As news of the severity of Zach’s injury came out, the somber, faithful Timberwolves fans, yet again, began the annual ritual of extinguishing their hopes of ending the longest standing playoff drought in the NBA.
I’ll just be honest, it got pretty bleak there for a moment. On top of LaVine being out, rookie Kris Dunn has yet to show any strides of improvement on offense, and we all sweated out the trade deadline as we kneeled before our oil and canvas portraits of Ricky Rubio. Alas, in Thibs we trust.
Somehow, as we reach down the stretch of this season, the playoff hopes for the Timberwolves, are still going strong.
Over the last two months, the Wolves are sitting just below .500 at 13-14. I know that doesn’t look like the kind of record you’d want in January and February from a team fighting for the 8th seed in the west, but when you compare it to the first two months of the season (11-22), it’s a huge leap forward. Also keeping in mind, February is a shortened month and LaVine was out for practically all of it.
The team’s success over this time is all in thanks to Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. They’ve taken full advantage of the extra share of the ball they get without LaVine and capitalized on almost every offensive opportunity they’re given.
Starting with KAT, he lit up the month of February with an insane 28 points per game and 13 rebounds. About two months ago he was getting lost in the shuffle in the new class of big men, Embiid, Jokic, Porzingis. But right now, Towns is in a class of his own. He was able to improve in every scoring statistic last month, something he had yet to do this season.
The story with Wiggins is no different. In February, he jumped from 22.1 points a game, to 28.8 points a game. He also contributed 3.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists during February.
As far as ts%, Towns finished the month at .674, which is actually the best that he’s shot in any other month of his entire career. Wiggins’ ts% stood at .594 for the month. This is something that cannot be taken for granted or glossed over in any way. Regardless of the fate of this year’s team, to have such a stretch where your two franchise players are pouring it in with high volume and high efficiency is something that people should take note of.
Another major improvement that has spun the fortune of the Wolves is Ricky Rubio who has seemed to have found a groove over the last two months. He’s averaged a double-double in February with 11.8 points and 10.5 assists. He also held a field goal percentage of .413 in January. He’s seemed to have shaken off the chagrin of his underwhelming start and played some of his most impressive games of his career while sitting on the trading block.
With the team playing drastically better basketball, it’s once again acceptable to adhere to the possibility that the Minnesota Timberwolves can sneak into the playoffs this year.
As it stands, the Wolves are 10th in the West, tied with Sacramento, who ended all-star weekend with a bang, trading DeMarcus Cousins for like a fax machine and a Nokia cell phone or something. They’ve since have begun to trend downward and it’s likely they’ll drop out of the playoff race once April comes around.
Portland is another team threatening the 8th seed as they are currently 9th in the West. Though they seem to be trending downward, going just 2-7 in February. They also just lost Ed Davis for the year and are still a few weeks away from the likelihood of Evan Turner coming back. It’s not too far gone to think that the Wolves could overtake the Blazers sometime this month.
The two biggest threats to the Wolves’ playoff hopes are the current 8th seed, Denver Nuggets, and the Pelicans who hold the best front court in the NBA since Duncan/Robinson.
For New Orleans, it all latches onto how fast Davis and Cousins can mesh. So far, they’re statistically playing well, but the rest of the team is failing to support them and Boogie is still Boogie as he secured his 18th technical just a few days ago. At this point, it can go either way for the Pelicans, but the sooner they figure it out, the worse it looks for Minnesota.
Denver is without a doubt the biggest blockade between the Timberwolves and post-season play. They’ve hovered around .500 for the last two months and have been pouring on the offense, averaging 115 points per game in January and 112 in February. But the fault lines for the Nuggets start to show when you look at their defense. They are currently dead last in defensive rating and allowing their opponents 111 points per game. With games coming up against the Wizards, Celtics, Clippers, Rockets, and Cavs over the next few weeks, it won’t be so easy for them to hold onto that 8th seed against these offensively powered teams. And the Timberwolves could be right there to slide into it.
But speaking of tough games coming up, it’s important to point out that the Wolves next 10 opponents are the Spurs, Blazers (serious playoff implications alert), Clippers, Warriors, Bucks, Wizards, Celtics, Heat, Pelicans (serious playoff implications alert), and Spurs again. If this were the Timberwolves of December, they’d be lucky to come out of this stretch with a single win. But this team has morphed. They’re a more confident bunch and despite missing one of the big 3, they’ve learned to play together under Thibodeau’s system.
Regardless of what the record or standings say, the Timberwolves are one of the most competitive and scrappy teams in the league and those next 10 games are not going to just be given away. Granted, I’d be surprised to see them come out of this stretch above .500 but I don’t think we should count them out of any of these matchups.
The Spurs sometimes have a tendency to let games slip away from them against teams they should easily beat. The season series with the Clippers is tied at 1-1 and even though, they’re back in full force with CP3, there are no guarantees. And the Warriors are without KD for the foreseeable future and with Klay and Curry currently going through the worst shooting slump of their careers, if the Wolves catch them on an off night, they could run away with a win. I mean, it happened at the end of last season.
No matter what happens, whether we see the Wolves in the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, or we’re launched into the perpetual despair of an early off season, once again, this team has figured out a lot over the last few months.
As they play on throughout, not just this season, but even in the future, a lot of what we will see with this Wolves team, and their predicted success, is going to be rooted in the confidence, maturity, and knowledge that they have generated for themselves over the course of the last few months. It’ll be a tough road down the stretch, but the Timberwolves aren’t yet finished, as they are now playing the most meaningful basketball that the franchise has endured in over a decade.