Sports

The Surging Timberwolves Are Learning Through the Struggle

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns played coy when a reporter asked if he had learned something about how to win tight, important games during his team’s 125-116 loss to the league-leading Phoenix Suns on Wednesday.

“For sure, for sure,” Towns said, before pausing as if thinking about whether to reveal what exactly he’d learned.

He thought better of it.

“For sure,” he said, “there’s definitely something I realized.” He added, “I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Towns is an unusually forthcoming interviewee for an N.B.A. star, but these days he has to make a calculation he’s rarely had to consider before: Whatever he reveals about his process could wind up offering an advantage to a playoff opponent.

After nearly two decades of dwelling in the bottom half of the N.B.A.’s Western Conference, the Timberwolves (42-32) are establishing themselves as energetic, young newcomers who might have some staying power as a playoff contender. That is, if they can avoid the traps of the league’s play-in tournament.

“We know we’re in this stretch where we’re playing all these top teams,” Timberwolves Coach Chris Finch said. “We said from the beginning when we started, this is what we wanted. We’re learning about ourselves. We’re learning what we need to do at this time of year to play against these teams.”

With eight games remaining in the season, Minnesota has more wins than in all but one of the previous 16 seasons (2017-18). Two of those seasons were shorter than the standard 82 games: The Timberwolves played just 64 games in 2019-20 because of the pandemic, and 66 in 2011-12 because of a labor lockout. Even so, their winning percentage this year will be better than those shortened seasons even if they lose the 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 past 17 when the Timberwolves made the playoffs.

Their postseason futility often earned them favorable draft positioning, including the No. 1 overall pick twice — in 2015, when they drafted Towns, and in 2020, when they drafted Anthony Edwards.

Edwards has brought energy with his play and personality, averaging 21 points per game in his second N.B.A. season and thrilling both teammates and fans with his buoyancy, particularly before injuring his knee in January.

Towns has embraced his leadership role. He’s been particularly 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.

Minnesota’s growth from last season is apparent, but it has also progressed since earlier this season. Minnesota lost seven of its first 10 games and had a season-worst six-game losing streak during that span.

But now, in March, the Timberwolves are 9-3 and have compiled winning streaks of four and six games since the All-Star break in February. They’ve hovered close to capturing at least the sixth-best record in the Western Conference, which is now the only way to ensure a playoff berth.

In the past, the league would simply include the top eight seeds in each conference in the playoffs. But last season, the N.B.A. introduced a play-in tournament for the bottom of its playoff bracket. In it, the teams with the seventh- through 10th-best records in each conference play in a mini tournament for the final two playoff spots.

The league liked the change so much it kept it this year, and it has created an uncommon level of late-season intrigue in both conferences. The Lakers, who have toggled between ninth and 10th place in the West, now have a cushion that gives them a second life even if they finish outside the top eight. For the Timberwolves, though, the play-in form has added a hurdle that didn’t exist through most of their playoff drought.

Anthony Edwards is averaging 21 points in his second season. His energy has been critical to Minnesota’s success this year.Credit…Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

As the standings sit now, the Timberwolves are the seventh seed and would host the eighth-seeded Clippers in their first play-in game. If Minnesota won, it would become the seventh seed in the playoffs. If it lost, it would play the winner of a game between the ninth and 10th seeds 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 rude reward for a Timberwolves team that has taken such strides this season.

Against the Suns on Wednesday, the Timberwolves saw what a team looks like when it has experience with closing and imposing its will. The Timberwolves led by 15 points in the third quarter, but were outscored by 22 in the second half. Technical and flagrant fouls called against Minnesota were part of the story, but so was Phoenix’s poise in its comeback effort.

With a six-game lead over the eighth-seeded Clippers, the Timberwolves are unlikely to finish lower than seventh, but they trail the sixth-seeded Nuggets by just a game and a half.

Capturing that sixth seed and being safely out of the play-in tournament will be challenging given the difficult schedule that remains. The Timberwolves have now lost consecutive games to the Mavericks and Suns. They’ll face Dallas again on Friday, then the Boston Celtics, who have gone 19-3 since the beginning of February. They’ll also face Chicago, Toronto and Denver — all in the top seven in their conferences — before the end of the season.

Denver would have been in contention for the Western Conference title this season if not for injuries, particularly the one to point guard Jamal Murray. In their path, Finch, who was on the Nuggets staff during the 2016-17 season, sees a point of comparison for the Wolves about what can be required to become a fixture in the postseason picture.

“It just takes time,” Finch said. “Especially when you have a young team, a young core.”

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