Ending a franchise postseason drought that stretches back a full decade, the Minnesota Timberwolves open the 2014 playoffs tonight against the sputtering New York Knicks…
OK, it’s not technically true (something about that West-East matchup didn’t seem quite right for the first round). But for all practical purposes, the Timberwolves’ postseason begins now.
Giddy as some Minnesotans might be over their favorite team’s peek above .500 (30-29) this late in the season, the Wolves haven’t yet earned any official status as a playoff qualifier. Unofficially, though, it’s on for them. They have a gap to close and a fat part of the schedule in front of them in which to make that happen.
Minnesota woke up Wednesday 4.5 games behind Phoenix for the No. 8 slot in the Western Conference and 5.0 games back of No. 7 Dallas. There also was the pesky reality of Memphis planted 4.0 games in front of them at No. 9. In other words, the Wolves have work to do.
But they’ve been doing it. They wrapped up their longest trip of the season Monday, beating Denver in a points-fest to return home with a 4-1 mark. Now they have a four-game homestand against New York, Detroit, Toronto and Milwaukee – all East (against whom Minnesota is 13-7, 8-1 at home) and three enduring miserable seasons. Even with the Raptors in there, the four are a combined 59 games under .500.
“We know what it’s all about,” Minnesota coach Rick Adelman said after the Denver game. “We have to come with big efforts each game. … We’re back over .500 now going back home, and we have to take advantage of it. If you’re going to try and make a move, you have to win these games.”
Ten of the Wolves’ next 15 games will be played at Target Center. Once they roll over what leads to no more than a four-game speed bump, they have a single-game trip to Charlotte, followed by Sacramento on March 16. Since they opened the month by defeating the Kings Saturday, that means March comes in like a very beatable lamb: seven of their first eight against sub-.500 foes. Minnesota has won 75 percent so far against teams with losing records (21-7).
“You don’t have too many must-wins in the beginning of March,” guard Kevin Martin said. “But we understand where we’re at right now and guys had the mindset of we had to do anything we had to do to get a win.”
Present tense, please. The schedule gets rougher in the second half of the month but the Wolves hardly could ask for more control of their destiny: In rapid succession, in a span of six days (March 19-24), they will play at Dallas, at Houston, vs. Phoenix and at Memphis. Two sets of back-to-backs with two days in between the sets, facing the three rivals stacked ahead of them in the West standings.
Then come home games against Atlanta March 26 and the L.A. Lakers March 28.
So let’s do the math: Minnesota ought to be thinking about a 5-1 run through March 16, allowing for a loss to Toronto or Charlotte but not both. That next four-game stretch, including the head-to-head clashes with the Mavericks, Suns, and Grizzlies, might prove to be self-defining. If the Wolves can’t go 3-1, their fate may be decided for them.
Add the home games vs. the Hawks and the Lakers, and it’s possible that Minnesota goes 10-2 through its next dozen games. That would push them to 14-3, counting the just-completed 4-1 trip. And that would put them at 40-31 with 11 games remaining.
Flip Saunders, Minnesota’s president of basketball operations, has targeted 45 or 46 victories as the cutoff for a playoff berth in the West. In his team’s final 11, the Wolves would face a direct rival only once (Memphis again on April 2). Three of its late-schedule opponents – Miami, San Antonio and Houston – might already have moved on to prepping for the postseason, resting key players accordingly and creating more opportunity for Minny.
Lofty ambitions? Yeah, especially in the West, at one game over .500 so deep into the calendar. But they also might be reasonable. The Wolves’ schedule is soft, players like Martin and Nikola Pekovic are back from injuries, Kevin Love keeps putting up stupid numbers, and there is something rather significant at stake. Right. Now.
The Wolves’ postseason begins tonight, only more so, because winning four out of every seven from now on won’t get it done.