What the Wolves need to do in the final quarter of the season

One year ago, we were sizing up potential playoff scenarios for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Jimmy Butler was missing time with a knee injury but at least it wasn’t season ending. After holding down the third and fourth seeds for much of the season, they had slid down to seventh and eighth and a first-round meeting with Houston or Golden State.

While neither of these matchups were ideal, at least they were going to the postseason. A big reason the Wolves were able to sustain an extended absence from Butler was the fact that they took care of business against other playoff contenders not named the Spurs.

This season has been just the opposite. All season long, the team has toiled on the fringes of the playoff picture and fans waiting for the team to make that push. Much like tiebreakers aided the team a season ago, they’re a significant reason why they may not make the playoffs in 2019.

Defeating the LA Clippers 130-120 certainly helped their cause, but they’ll still need a few more breaks to go their way if they wish to steal a playoffs spot. As it stands now, they’re unlikely to be bad enough to earn a top draft choice anyway.

Here’s a look at where the Wolves stand versus the teams surrounding them in the standings.

Sitting four games back of the eighth seed, we’ll look at the teams between them in that slot. San Antonio holds the seventh seed and sits 5.5 games up on Minnesota. That may be too much ground to cover with 26 games to play.

● Dallas Mavericks | 26-30 | 4.0 games back of eighth seed
You know what could help the Wolves make up that ground? Not having lost two of the first three meetings to the Mavs would help. At this point, the Wolves need to beat Dallas on April 3 because their margin for error is razor-thin now more. After all, the Mavericks already own the tiebreaker.

● Los Angeles Lakers | 28-28 | 2.5 games back of eighth seed
I would have guessed before the season that the Wolves would have the tiebreaker over the Mavericks before a LeBron James-led team. Winning 3-of-4 meetings, the Wolves’ emphatic 22-point home victory in early January sealed both the head-to-head tiebreaker and Tom Thibodeau’s fate. This is a useful one to have in the event that the Lakers slide and the Wolves can tie them in the standings at the end of the season.

● Los Angeles Clippers | 31-27 | Tied for eighth seed
Monday’s victory over the Clippers was huge because the Wolves already down 0-1 in the season series. With just one more meeting left in late March, a loss would have given the Clippers the tiebreaker. These two teams will meet again in Minneapolis in a game that the Wolves should treat like a playoff game.

● Sacramento Kings | 30-26 | Tied for eighth seed
The Kings are one of the best stories in the NBA this season. After the Timberwolves made the postseason in 2018, the Kings became the team in the league with the longest playoff drought. Sacramento leads the season series 2-1 with one more meeting on Feb. 25 in Minneapolis. If the Wolves manage to win that one, the tiebreaker would then be determined by best conference record. The two teams have very similar records making each remaining conference game significant.

On a similar note, the Pelicans, two games behind the Wolves, own the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Pelicans may not be in the playoff picture at this point but they could still play spoiler for a team like Timberwolves.

If you’ve read my work in this space in the past, I’ve said this before but will say it again. When you’re a playoff contender, every conference game matters. People who tell you that NBA games don’t matter before Christmas are lying to you and not your friends. By New Year’s 2018, the Wolves had already locked up crucial tiebreakers versus the Pelicans and Thunder.

Unfortunately, at 16-22 against the West this season, Minnesota has not been one of the best teams in the conference. Just one team in the Western Conference top-10 has a losing record against the West, the Kings, and it’s preventing them from pulling away from both L.A. teams. You could, however, say that it’s keeping the Wolves’ hopes alive.

Playing away from Target Center has also been a challenge. Despite an 18-10 home record, the Timberwolves are just 8-20 on the road. If just five of those road losses were victories, the Wolves’ prospects would be much more promising.

Four of the top-10 teams in the West currently have losing road records: Portland (4th), Houston (5th), San Antonio (7th), Sacramento (8th), and Los Angeles (Lakers) 10th).

Road record alone hasn’t been the determinant of success this season but only the Kings have both a losing conference and road record. You can usually be bad in one of these categories but not both.

Of the other four teams with a losing road record, the Spurs are the only team more than five games below .500. At 10-19, the Spurs have been dreadful on the road but have made up for it with a 22-7 home record. That kind of home success can makeup for lackluster road performances. While the Wolves have been good, they haven’t shown to be good enough at home to make up for their road deficiencies.

If the Wolves want to make the playoffs, they’re going to have to play uncharacteristically well on the road. Half of their remaining games will be away from Target Center.

Over half of their 26 remaining games will be against Western Conference opponents. With games against the Warriors (2x), Rockets, Nuggets, Thunder, and other playoff contenders left, the Wolves can’t afford to have an off night against the Grizzlies or Hornets. The Wolves are all out of “off nights” at this point.
Making the postseason for the second consecutive season isn’t out of the question for the Timberwolves. The odds are slim but they still have a chance with several key games remaining. Their current standing isn’t ideal but you don’t feel a whole lot better about any of the teams ahead of them either.

Getting healthy will go a long way but even at full strength, this team struggled finding consistency. Whether or not the Wolves can do it now, in the 11th hour, remains to be seen.