What happens now?
The Wolves, with 14 games to go, sit at 28-40 on the season. The past decade and a half would almost exclusively put them completely out of the Western Conference playoff race. But this year is weird. As of right now, they sit at the 11th spot, but still, somehow, just 5 games out of 8th.
The problem with this is:
A) The Wolves were 2.5 games back just 2 weeks ago.
B) 5 games out with 14 games to go is a high hill to climb.
C) The Mavericks and Blazers still sit between them and 8th, in addition to the actual 8th place Nuggets.
Last night, like what is/was every night going forward, was a must-win for the Wolves. The score itself is a bit of an illusion; they were down by just 4 halfway through the 4th quarter. But when they fell apart, it was over. And keep in mind, the Heat are in a race for the 8th spot too. And coming into last night, they were in real striking range. After their win, they’re in 8th.
The Wolves’ failed effort to stay in relevance had few positive points last night, but they did exist. Ricky Rubio extended his 20+ point streak to 4, as well as his “foul trouble in key spots” streak to 2. His scoring night was only overmatched by the big man duel that the national audience was hoping for.
Karl-Anthony Towns kept his torrid number streak going, shooting 11-17 for 31 points and 11 rebounds. But his desire to keep the Wolves in the game offensively may have been outmatched by his and Gorgui Dieng’s (primarily Gorgui) inability to stay with Hassan Whiteside (23 points on 10-11 shooting) on the pick and roll. Whiteside’s chemistry with Goran Dragic has developed over the past couple years, and their ability to set up the alley off the pick and roll is among the top combos in the league. They exposed the Wolves several times with this.
Notice here, Whiteside isn’t even the screener. He just leaks towards the basket the moment Dieng goes to help.
Off the bench, Tyler Johnson broke out of a slump of sorts to help Whiteside and Dragic in the scoring column. While both teams had 3 guys put up decent scoring numbers (KAT, Rubio, Wiggins for the Wolves), and different members of the supporting cast scoring as well (Shabazz and Dieng both scored the ball efficiently), the difference lied in the defense.
The Wolves had a period where they were topping the league in defensive rating over a stretch of games that INCLUDED the 142 point onslaught the Rockets did to them earlier in March. Last night’s performance showed no signs of that defensive competence. The Heat shot nearly 60 percent from the floor, and got the free throw line 19 times. In other words, Goran Dragic (who had 10 assists in the game) was free to whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Whiteside followed suit.
So what happens now? The Wolves have 14 games to go. Here is their schedule going forward:
Looking at the schedules for Denver, Dallas, and Portland, it looks like the Wolves may have the toughets road ahead. And being 5 games back, behind 3 teams for the last spot, the odds of the Wolves making the playoffs is bleak at this point.
To be fair, being in a race in mid-March is something the Wolves haven’t really experienced since 2005. In that sense, it is fun to be a Timberwolves fan again. There are upsides to this downswing. That said, going forward, everything remains a must-win. More now than yesterday, even.