I was watching the Minnesota Timberwolves blow out the Oklahoma City Thunder with my partner last Wednesday. They are new to basketball, but they’ve already got the itch. They said to me, “Sometimes the Wolves look unstoppable. Why can’t they play like this all the time?” A fair question that I think we’ve all asked ourselves at some point this season. The Wolves have struggled with consistency all season.
Currently, Minnesota finds itself on a Star Wars-night-fueled four-game win streak. The Wolves are pretty familiar with streakiness. This season they’ve already rattled off a six-game losing streak, five-game winning streak, five-game losing streak, then another four-game streak. It’s been a wild ride. This most recent run has put the Wolves at 20-20, the eighth seed in the Western Conference. After Wednesday’s win against OKC, Anthony Edwards had one unambiguous message:
“We are going to the playoffs.”
But are they? The truth is, sometimes the Wolves look incredible. Their defense can be overwhelming, and when one of Ant, D’Angelo Russell, or Karl-Anthony Towns gets rolling, they can be a difficult force to stop. Jarred Vanderbilt has turned into a vicious rebounder. Patrick Beverley has brought a desperately needed edge to this franchise. Jaylen Nowell has emerged as a high-quality microwave-scoring reserve. All told, the team has the eighth-best defense in the league and has climbed its way to the 19th-ranked offense. They are good enough to give them a net rating of 0.9, 14th in the league.
On paper, this looks like a playoff team. However, basketball is more than a spreadsheet. The stats can help inform the analyst about what is happening on the court or maybe reveal some truth contrary to what we see on the floor. But, ultimately, all the statistical accomplishments don’t matter when a team is in the heat of competition. It’s about who can win the game.
Minnesota’s complement of stats shows a team that is bubbling with potential. Using Cleaning the Glass’s garbage time filter, the Timberwolves have the seventh-best point differential in the league over the last two weeks. Granted, it’s been a turbulent time for the league. Players have been in and out of lineups due to the COVID-19 spike. Regardless, the Wolves emerge from the surge as a team transformed. So many of their rotational pieces were able to find their groove while the stars were out.
The Wolves have reached the .500 mark right as they approach the halfway point of the season. Feels like kismet. But, as the Wolves begin to perform better, they come to a point where the rubber meets the road. The point at which all of this potential is met with the weight of expectation. If Ant is so confident about the Wolves making the playoffs, they better play like it.
You see, being the eighth seed is no longer good enough to make the playoffs. The play-in tournament has added an element of risk for those teams in the middle of the conference rankings. Say the Wolves maintain this position — the opportunity for them to make the playoffs may come down to one game. This is where consistency matters. Up to this point, the Wolves haven’t instilled confidence that they can show up in any one game and be the team that put a beat-down on the Los Angeles Lakers twice. Can they be the team that so emphatically beat the Miami Heat back in November? Or will they look more like the team that lost three in a row by double digits to the Atlanta Hawks, Utah Jazz, and Cleveland Cavaliers on their home court?
There is hope, though. If the Wolves make the play-in, any fan has to hope that they can indeed show up in a win-or-go-home type of situation. The more important undertaking is for the Wolves to be entirely out of the play-in mix. The sixth seed in the West is within arm’s reach. The depleted Denver Nuggets are holding on to that spot through the sheer force of will of Nikola Jokic. The Wolves are only a game back from Denver and two games away from the fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks.
Anthony Edwards says they are a playoff team, so let’s see them prove it. They’ve got to hold on to this momentum and keep some consistency. This four-game streak came against a pu pu platter of opponents: the Paul George-less Los Angeles Clippers, the actively tanking Oklahoma City Thunder, and the woeful Houston Rockets. The Wolves will face the Golden State Warriors twice, the Brooklyn Nets, Phoenix Suns, and Utah Jazz in January. It will be a challenging slate of games but a real test to see if the last two weeks have been a mirage or a true reflection of who they are.