When considering the entire season’s body of work, it’s hard not to feel good about the Timberwolves heading into All-Star break.
They’ve already passed their win total from last season, are tied for third in the Western Conference and are on pace to win 48 games at season’s end. They have two participants in this year’s All-Star game, one of whom is a 22-year-old first-timer with the potential to be an all-time great center.
Things are good; in fact, they haven’t been this good in a while. When looking at the big picture, the Timberwolves are having their best season since Kevin Garnett’s first stint.
They’ve accumulated a handful quality wins against some of the better competition in the league, and are an astounding 17-3 against teams seeded three through 10 in the Western Conference.
Lots of good things are happening to the Timberwolves, but the standings still make the final 21 games of the season incredibly important.
Even amidst the best season, the Wolves have had in the last 14 years, several other teams are having similar success. In fact, the difference between the third spot (San Antonio and Minnesota) and the 10th spot (Utah) is just four and a half games.
“We’re going to be challenged,” Tom Thibodeau said on Thursday. “The West is tough. You’re going to have to slug it out every night.”
The good news for Wolves fans: they’ve managed to hold a top-four spot in the West for nearly the entire season. While Houston and Golden State have virtually locked up the top two slots, the chances for a third-place finish have become possible.
But when looking at the Spurs, as well as the rest of the league, it’s hard to see a third-place finish happening.
With Kawhi Leonard’s eventual return (hopefully) to the Spurs lineup and Gregg Popovich’s general reputation, the Spurs are expected to trend upward to close the season. The Jazz – with lots of ground to make up – are finally healthy and expect to continue to move their way into a playoff slot. With the West as tight as it is, a top-five finish is within the realm of possibility.
But then there are teams like the Wolves, Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers that have been mostly healthy – excluding Andre Roberson’s injury for the Thunder – but still display a certain level of inconsistency.
Most recently, the Wolves might be the most notable of these struggles.
Over the past 16 games, the Wolves are just 7-9. They’re back to playing a familiar brand of poor defense, and have struggled to beat some of the worst teams in the NBA over that stretch. This includes road losses to Orlando, Atlanta and Chicago.
“You never have it all figured out,” Thibodeau said. “That’s the important thing, is to concentrate on the improvement. Obviously, you want to be playing your best down the stretch.”
Thibodeau’s job is to keep track of both the big picture and the immediate circumstance. His players, generally speaking, haven’t been as prone to look at the standings, even as season’s end gets closer.
Jimmy Butler’s media availability ended Wednesday the moment the playoffs were even mentioned. On Thursday night, a mention of the standings drew a similar result.
“I don’t care about numbers,” he said when he was told the Wolves are tied for third.
While Butler doesn’t care about numbers, he is aware of what they often represent. On the night’s he’s been most critical of the team’s defense – the Cleveland/Chicago road trip, for example – his team’s defense was at its worst, and the numbers showed it.
To start March, the Wolves will be forced to deal with what could be seen as the toughest 10-game stretch of the season.
The close of the season might give the Wolves a chance at a strong finish, but the 10-game stretch to open the final month of the regular season might be the breaking point for their final playoff placement.
With the West as close as it is, the Wolves’ odds of finishing fourth feel just as good as them finishing in seventh or eighth. Mathematically, they could still finish as low as 10th.
In order for them to hold their ground and finish with homecourt in the first round, they’ll need to acknowledge the big picture and the now.
They have Thibodeau to keep track of the big picture – along with anything and everything else, because it’s Thibs – and Butler to focus his teammates in on the immediate.
For now, they all have a break and a chance to recharge. When they get back on Friday, they’ll have a chance to take advantage of that rest, and build on the impressive start they’ve put together.
While the last 15 games haven’t been great, the big picture shows what they can do. It shows they can finish with a top-four record. They can play better.
We’ve all seen it.
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