With the Western Conference as scary stacked as it’s been this season, the Minnesota Timberwolves—forever, it seems, on the outside looking in—simply can’t afford to tread water.
Following a 118-106 home loss to the lowly New York Knicks, the Wolves should be more concerned of drowning outright.
Against a team that entered Wednesday’s contest in the midst of their own dire downward spiral—seven straight losses, to be exact—Minnesota ‘s worst tendencies once again rose to the surface: woeful perimeter defense, inconsistent shooting and an inability to sustain a run when they need it most. This despite a balanced attack wherein six Wolves finished in double figures.
The loss keeps the Wolves five games behind the Dallas Mavericks for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.
As Andy Greder of the St. Paul Pioneer Press noted, Minnesota missed a golden opportunity to keep pace in a fast-tightening playoff race.
#Twolves miss on opportunity to gain in playoff race. Memphis lost to Brooklyn. Dallas lost to Denver. But Golden State beat Boston.— Andy Greder (@twolvesnow) March 6, 2014
After hitting the skids ahead of the All-Star break—to the tune of six losses in eight games—Rick Adelman’s crew knew theirs was the slimmest margin of home-stretch errors.
With four of their next five games coming against teams below .500—three of them at home—Minnesota isn’t dead yet, and likely won’t be for weeks.
Still, the team will need to put together a winning streak longer than three games—their longest, accomplished four times this season—to make the Mavericks and Phoenix Suns truly feel Minnesota’s footsteps.
All season long, there’s been a Jekyll-Hyde feel to the Timberwolves’ play near unrivaled in the NBA: According to NBA.com, the Wolves are registering an offensive efficiency of 111.8 and a defensive efficiency of 97.0 in the team’s 30 wins.
In their 30 losses, those numbers drop (or rise) to 98.6 and 108.7, respectively.
In a league where consistency often serves as the dividing line between pretenders and contenders, Minnesota’s roller-coaster efficiency is far from a promising bellwether.
And yet, there’s something of an irony to the Wolves’ ever-middling woe: Through Wednesday, Minnesota boasted the league’s No. 9 offense (105.1) and No. 11 defensive efficiency (102.5)—more than enough to suggest playoff mettle, if not for an historically dominant Western Conference.
Worse yet, whether or not the Wolves make it to the postseason could weigh heavily on whether Kevin Love—who has the option of becoming a free agent next summer—decides to make Minnesota his permanent home.
As our very own Zach Buckley wrote back in January, that opinions of Love will be invariably shaped by his team’s success has become a permanent part of the conversation:
So when a team fortunate enough to land an elite talent struggles as much as Minnesota has, those critical fingers eventually start pointing at that player. No one's asking Love to lead a championship push, but continually coming up short in the regular season is more than a bit concerning. When a 30-team league sends out 16 playoff invitations, eventually people wonder what's wrong with the teams that are consistently left out of the picture.
Even if Dallas or Phoenix plays .500 basketball from here on out—unlikely, given both remain a full 10 games above that mark—the Wolves would still have to go 17-5 from here on out to catch whichever team breaks the basement.
Conceivable? Sure. Likely? Not so much.
Truth be told, the odds would’ve been stacked just as heavily against Minnesota had it managed to stop the skidding Knicks.
At the same time, Adelman was the first to acknowledge what will no doubt be the next-day narrative: With too-many steps left to go on their march through the minefield, Minnesota slipped up once again. Via Greder:
#Twolves coach Rick Adelman: "We can’t give in and say, ‘this is a killer.’ I know everyone is gonna say, ‘You shouldn’t lose to Knicks.' "— Andy Greder (@twolvesnow) March 6, 2014
Sadly, the writing seems all but jackhammered to the wall: Should the Timberwolves once again fall short, next season will be one spent biding its superstar’s borrowed time.
How Wednesday’s loss impacts the Wolves’ psyche over the coming days—with a soft schedule running all the way to a March 19 showdown with the eighth-place Mavericks—will go a long way in determining whether this is finally the year they exercise their playoff demons, or if the biting Minnesota cold once again portends a silent spring.