Maybe the playoffs were never like an absolute certainty for the Timberwolves, but it felt like it early on.
But on Wednesday night, they will play for the closest thing to a playoff game this team has participated in the last 14 years — a pseudo play-in game against the Denver Nuggets, whom the Wolves are tied with for eighth in the Western Conference standings.
Considering the resolve of Jimmy Butler and his coach, it’s safe to assume that the players are getting properly prepared for the biggest NBA game played in the Target Center since 2004.
“You’ve got to go out there and earn it,” Tom Thibodeau said. “That’s what we’re looking forward to.”
But considering how they started the year, the fact that this scenario happened at all is a surprise.
The Timberwolves held a top-four spot in the Western Conference through the majority of the season. The Spurs and the Wolves alternated between third and fourth — with the Oklahoma City Thunder popping in from time to time — but the Wolves were remarkably good at treading water in that regard.
It wasn’t until a chippy and ejection-happy March 2 loss to the Utah Jazz that the Wolves finally fell out of the top four — they fell from third to sixth with one loss. Since then, the West standings have been as steady as a Corey Brewer jumpshot.
Despite winning more games this year than they have since 2004, and the celebration that should come from that alone, the entire season could be lost in one night.
But even with the success they had in mind, how did the Timberwolves fall from a top-four mainstay to a team that needs to win its last game to qualify for the postseason? What got them to this point?
There’s more than one answer. We’ll start with the obvious.
Jimmy Butler Got Hurt
Even before the Wolves fell to the sixth slot on March 2, Butler had already been out for three-and-a-half games. His torn meniscus — suffered Feb. 23 in a loss to the West-leading Houston Rockets — kept him out for 17 games and quite possibly the toughest stretch of the entire season.
The Wolves went 8-9 in his absence — a record which could have been a lot worse, but still did a great deal of damage at the worst possible time.
They held their top-four slot in offensive rating in his absence in the grand scheme of the season — they’re still tied for fifth — but fell to way to 11th while he was out.
And while some are quick to mention the equally poor team defensive rating with and without Butler in the lineup, a quick check-in to the lineup stats can make his statistical value on the defensive end clear very quickly.
Yes, the Wolves were a bottom-five defensive rating before Butler went down, but they also held a defensive rating of 102.8 in minutes when Butler shared the floor with Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Taj Gibson — that’s good enough for a top-five mark league-wide.
In other words, the starters did their job defensively when Butler was healthy.
But down the stretch of games, when Butler often jumped in and — for better or worse — would completely take over the game, the Wolves looked lost.
During the time Butler was out, the Wolves won some impressive games, most notably their home win against the (Steph Curry-less Warriors.
But the bad losses also piled up. They suffered a brutal loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, barely beat the Dallas Mavericks and beat the Atlanta Hawks by single digits despite a 56-point outing from Towns.
They also lost games in blowout fashion that likely would have been seen as tossups with Butler in the lineup, most notably Utah and Philadelphia.
But in the defense of the players out there in Butler’s absence, the bad losses started well before he got hurt.
They Piled Up the Bad Losses
In order, Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies, Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings, Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets have the seven worst records in the NBA.
With the exception of Dallas and Sacramento, the Timberwolves have lost to each of these teams — in the cases of Phoenix and Memphis, the Wolves have lost twice.
That makes up eight of their 35 losses this season to five of the seven worst teams in the league — had the Timberwolves won even half of those “gimmes”, they’d be going into the season finale with 50 wins and the No. 3 seed clinched.
Any NBA player would be rightfully quick to mention that every NBA team has quality NBA players, and any team can lose on any given night. Every one of those bottom-seven teams has wins against elite teams in both conferences. This problem isn’t exclusive to the Timberwolves in that sense.
But no team fighting for playoff rights has as many bad losses as the Timberwolves do. And while the fact remains that all NBA teams have NBA-caliber players, some of the Timberwolves remain aware of the opportunities they missed out on.
“Every game counts,” Wiggins said at Tuesday afternoon practice, when asked about what he learned from this season. “There’s games we look back on that we lost to teams that we shouldn’t lose to, and it’s haunting us now.”
If the Timberwolves win on Wednesday, it will be easier to forget the bad losses they encountered along the way. But if they lose, it will be impossible to forget.
The Defense Was Bad, and Didn’t Get Better
There was a point when the Timberwolves had a good defense this season, but it wasn’t long. Between Dec. 18 and Jan. 14, the Timberwolves had the sixth-best defense in the NBA.
At that point, everyone was playing together and seemed to enjoy playing defense. Jeff Teague was injured for a good part of this run; in his absence, Tyus Jones filled in admirably. The team pushed the ball on offense, and often made smart gambles on defense.
But even when Teague returned, the defense kept up, and the Wolves looked like a new team. Had they kept up that sort of production, a fight for the final playoff spot would have never happened.
But this window was short. Prior to this 15-game spurt, the Timberwolves started the season 23rd in defensive rating. Following the 15-game spurt, they were 26th.
While the vocal and lead-by-example tutelage of Butler and Gibson have undoubtedly brought this team wins and defensive stops last year’s team would have dreamed of making, their work was often eradicated once Thibodeau would start deploying his bench.
It’s hard to pin blame on something as complex and team-wide as defensive shortcomings. Part of it is coaching; if the team isn’t learning under a head coach as reputable for defensive schemes as Thibodeau, something might be wrong with the delivery of the message.
But if it’s true that Thibodeau is an expert defensive coach, how much blame goes to the players for the message not fully sinking in? Why is it that the two players that are so clearly the most in-tune — by way of the eye test — to his defensive ideals former Bulls?
Towns and Wiggins have made leaps defensively, but their youth still shows from time to time — especially when their new defacto mentors leave the floor.
So how much of that is development?
It Was Always Close, and Other Teams Got Hot
Even while the Wolves were in the top four, the rest of the league was right on their tail. Often times, it was only San Antonio that would pass them, but teams like Oklahoma City, Denver, Portland and New Orleans were always within a few games.
In a lot of ways, it’s pretty incredible the Wolves held onto the top four as long as they did.
And as the Wolves started to fall amidst Butler’s injury, the Utah Jazz started playing like the best defensive team in the NBA upon Rudy Gobert’s return. Meanwhile, the Damian Lillard propelled the Portland Trail Blazers to a double-digit winning streak.
Ultimately, the Wolves were able to hold their ground for the most part, but teams like Utah and Portland got hot at the perfect time. The Timberwolves did not.
Towns has become a star. There’s no disputing that.
Even amidst questions about his touches — or lack thereof — he’s still putting up 20 and 10 almost every night and doing so in an efficient fashion. He made his first All-Star game this year and there’s no reason to doubt perennial returns are coming over the next few years.
Jones has become a sound rotation player and a solid spot starter. There’s no disputing that, either.
Even when ignoring the great stretch he had in December and January, Jones has become a trusted member of Thibodeau’s bench — a role not easy to earn. He’s proven himself as a defender; and while his shooting remains inconsistent, he remains one of the more reliable outside threats on a team desperate for outside shooting.
And both Towns and Jones made strides on defense, though they weren’t the only one.
Wiggins remains a statistical liability defensively — he’s 61st out of 90 qualified small forwards in the flawed defensive real plus-minus statistic. On the other hand, the team’s defensive rating drops when he comes out of the lineup.
The latter suggests the eye test more than the former.
But anyone who’s watched Wiggins this year can tell that he’s made strides on that end. His hands are more active, he’s contesting better at the rim, and the effort on the glass reflects much better via the eye test than the stat sheet. He has his flaws, but his defense is coming along.
But his offense, his calling card in many ways, remains a huge question mark.
There’s no question he can score — he’s averaged near or above 20 points per game every year he’s been in the league. But the efficiency to which he scores has never been there.
In the years prior to this, it was mostly chalked up to being on a bad team, not having the teammates to help him and general youth factoring in.
But when Butler joined the team, the thought was Wiggins would no longer be guarded by the opposing team’s best defender. He’d had opportunities to take advantages of mismatches and up his production.
To this point, that hasn’t happened.
Leading into Wednesday’s game, he’s shooting the same percentage from the field as he did his rookie year — a career-worst. He’s also regressed from the 3-point line, is shooting astronomically worse from the free-throw line and is attempting almost half the free throws he’s shot through the majority of his career.
And it doesn’t just stop at Wiggins. As great as Towns is, his defense is still a work in progress. He remains liable to fall into foul trouble — he fouled out the last time the Timberwolves played Denver, in fact — and his habit of arguing after the fact can’t help matters.
And it doesn’t just stop at the regular rotation guys. Justin Patton was a near-lottery pick that showed flashes in Iowa but never saw a climb statistically in the minor leagues. Two-way signees Anthony Brown and Amile Jefferson were never used beyond their G League output, with the exception of a couple garbage time minutes last week for Brown.
This team has shown a lot of progress, and the key young guys are going to keep growing. But some of the growth that didn’t happen hurt this team, and probably cost them some wins.
There’s Still Good News
Things could have been worse.
The Wolves could have, and probably should have, lost to Golden State when Butler was out. Wiggins could have missed that half-court buzzer-beater in Oklahoma City. Jamal Crawford could have missed that baseline jumper to give them the win over Utah.
This season has had some undeniably ugly moments, but it’s also had more fun moments than the last 10 years combined. Wednesday’s game won’t be an official playoff game, but it will have a playoff atmosphere. Both teams will treat it like a playoff game.
If they lose, it will be easy to look back at the things that cost them a shot at an actual seven-game playoff series, and deservedly so.
But if they beat Denver on Wednesday, it will be equally as easy to look back at all of the fun moments that led them to their best season in over a decade.
And deservedly so.
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