Now that the NHL All-Star break has come and gone, there is hope the Minnesota Wild will spring out of its annual winter funk and play, as expected, competitive playoff hockey. Mention the other Minnesota winter game, basketball, and there can only be hope for "competitive" when talking Timberwolves.
Only the most fervent of fans could have expected the Wolves to earn a playoff spot after owning the NBA's worst record last season at 16-66. Minnesota is 14-35, trailing division leader Oklahoma City by 20 games and they have lost 14 of their last 16 games. However, for as inconsistent as the T'Wolves have been 39 games into this season, there is hope. Even if it is just a glimmer.
Minnesota is showing signs of improvement. Rookie Karl-Anthony Towns secured his 25th double-double of the season with 21 points/13 rebounds in the 96-93 loss to Portland Sunday night. Towns, the NBA's No. 1 pick in the June draft, is averaging 16 points a game and nearly 10 rebounds per night. Towns is everything for which the organization had hoped when he was selected by the late Flip Saunders with that top pick.
In fact, Towns knows his team, and himself in particular. "There are a lot of games left and we can do better," Towns said.
Forty-Three games remain in the season and if the Wolves want to extend it with a playoff visit, they'll have to get busy. Currently, Minnesota sits 15th of 16 among Western Conference teams. However, the Wolves are only 9 games back of the eighth and final playoff spot. After the NBA's All-Star break in February, the Wolves will play ten of the next 16 games on the road. During that run, the Wolves will face sub-500 teams like Charlotte, Phoenix, New Orleans, Brooklyn, Washington and the NY Knicks. So Minnesota has the opportunity to play its own game of Playoff Catch-Up.
NBA insiders don't believe it will happen. Many say chalk up this season to another "learning" campaign. Interim Coach Sam Mitchell counters, "This is our team, we're young." Mitchell says that his team is still learning to win. Especially in the fourth quarter when losing leads result in losses.
The Wolves have 43 games to close the deal. To punch their playoff ticket, Minnesota will need the continued maturation of Towns, a second-half resurgence for past rookie of the year Andrew Wiggins and more in the tremendous season of point guard Ricky Rubio. The Wolves $12.7 million point guard is enjoying a career year in assists and lack of turnovers but remains a shooting liability.
Young but not giving up and with little time left to leapfrog a handful of teams into their first playoff visit in more than a decade.