Minnesota Timberwolves center-back Karl-Anthony Towns was shy when asked by a reporter if he had learned anything about how to win important, tight games during his team’s 125-116 loss to the Phoenix Suns, leaders of the Phoenix Suns. the league on wednesday.
“Sure, sure,” Towns said, before stopping as if wondering if he should reveal exactly what he had learned.
He thought better of it.
“Surely,” he said, “there’s definitely something I noticed.” He added: “I will make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Towns is an unusually close interviewee for an NBA star, but today he has to make a calculation that he has seldom had to consider before: anything he reveals about his process could end up giving an opponent an advantage. of the playoffs.
After nearly two decades of living in the lower half of the NBA Western Conference, the Timberwolves (42-32) are consolidating themselves as energetic young newcomers who could have some power as contenders in the playoffs. That is, if they can avoid the pitfalls of the league play-in tournament.
“We know we’re in this stretch where we’re playing with all these best teams,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “It simply came to our notice then. We are learning about ourselves. We are learning what we have to do at this time of year to play against these teams. “
With eight games to go this season, Minnesota has more wins than in all of the previous 16 seasons except one (2017-18). Two of those seasons were shorter than the standard 82 games: the Timberwolves played just 64 games in 2019-20 due to the pandemic and 66 in 2011-12 due to a job block. Still, their winning streak this year will be better than those shortened seasons even if they lose their last eight games.
That 2017-18 season, with Jimmy Butler leading the way to a 47-35 record, was also the only one in the last 17 when the Timberwolves reached the playoffs.
Their futility in the postseason often earned them a favorable draft pick, including the No. 1 overall pick twice: in 2015, when they selected Towns, and in 2020, when they selected Anthony Edwards.
Edwards has provided energy with his game and personality, averaging 21 points per game in his second season in the NBA and thrilling both teammates and fans with his buoyancy, especially before injuring his knee in the NBA. January
Towns has accepted his leadership role. He was especially effective in March, starting the month with a 39-point effort against the Golden State Warriors and scoring 60 points last week against the San Antonio Spurs.
The Timberwolves have relied on veteran baseman Patrick Beverley for his defense and the advice he can offer as a person with extensive playoff experience. Beverley has appeared in seven post-season appearances, including last year, when he was with a Clippers team that reached the Western Conference Finals.
Minnesota’s growth over last season is evident, but it has also advanced since the beginning of this season. Minnesota lost seven of its first 10 games and had the worst streak of six straight losses this season during that period.
But now, in March, the Timberwolves are 9-3 and have racked up four- and six-game winning streak since the All-Star break in February. They have come close to securing at least the sixth-best Western Conference record, which is now the only way to secure a place in the playoffs.
In the past, the league would simply include the top eight seeded players from each conference in the playoffs. But last season, the NBA introduced a play-in tournament for the bottom of its playoff group. In it, the teams with the best records from the seventh to the tenth of each conference play in a mini-tournament for the last two playoff spots.
The league liked the change so much that it has kept it this year, and has created an unusual level of intrigue at the end of the season in both conferences. The Lakers, who have switched between ninth and 10th position in the West, now have a cushion that gives them a second life even if they finish out of the top eight. For the Timberwolves, however, the form of play has added an obstacle that did not exist during most of their playoff drought.
As the standings are now, the Timberwolves are the seventh seed and will host the Clippers, the eighth seed, in their first play-in game. If Minnesota won, it would become the seventh seed in the playoffs. If he lost, he would play the winner of a game between the ninth and 10th seed for the right to be the eighth seed in the playoffs.
Last season, the format allowed the Memphis Grizzlies to sneak into the playoffs with play-in wins over San Antonio and Golden State, despite finishing the regular season with the ninth-best record in the West.
Such a fate is perhaps a bad reward for a Timberwolves team that has taken these steps this season.
On Wednesday against the Suns, the Timberwolves saw what a team is like when it has experience closing in and imposing its will. The Timberwolves led by 15 points in the third quarter, but were outscored by 22 in the second half. The technical and flagrant fouls called up against Minnesota were part of the story, but so was Phoenix’s balance in his comeback effort.
With a six-game lead over the Clippers, the eighth seed, the Timberwolves are unlikely to finish below seventh, but they only lose the Nuggets, sixth seed, with just one and a half games.
Capturing this sixth seed and being out of the game tournament will be a challenge given the difficult schedule left. The Timberwolves have now lost consecutive games to the Mavericks and Suns. They will face Dallas again on Friday, and then the Boston Celtics, who have been leading 19-3 since early February. They will also face Chicago, Toronto and Denver, all in the top seven of their conferences, before the end of the season.
Denver would have been in the Western Conference title fight this season had it not been for injuries, especially that of baseman Jamal Murray. On his way, Finch, who was in the Nuggets squad during the 2016-17 season, sees a point of comparison for the Wolves on what may be required to become a fixture in the postseason photo.
“It just takes time,” Finch said. “Especially when you have a young team, a young core.”