The Timberwolves treated their fans to more than a Game 3 victory over the Rockets on Saturday. They put on a display of aesthetically pleasing basketball — not the norm this year, even as wins piled up — and they showed off a blueprint for how this series could get really interesting if they’re able to duplicate their effort and execution in Game 4 Monday.
There’s also at least a decent chance, though, that the No. 1-seeded Rockets will stiffen and strengthen to once again take control of the series. A close, hard-fought Timberwolves loss at home followed by a resounding defeat on the road could be the way this all ends.
If it does, this postseason trip will be an exact replica of the one put forward by the Wild. It was barely more than a week ago that the Wild cruised to a 6-2 victory to cut the Jets’ series lead to 2-1, creating genuine optimism among the faithful.
The Wild didn’t score another goal in the series, and now it’s golf season for the players. For the Wild’s fans, it’s open season for critiques of all that went wrong and is wrong with the franchise.
Timing and history is everything.
If the Wolves “fail” in the same manner as the Wild this year — and I use quotation marks because losing in the playoffs is only a failure to a certain hardened, hot-take segment of sports fandom — they would be viewed much differently. Just reaching the postseason for the first time in 14 years is a novelty and something upon which to build.
You can think the injury-ravaged Wild deserves at least a little break for this year’s playoff performance while also making a strong case that even with everyone healthy this team’s fate very well could have been the same: No. 3 in the division, first-round loss to Winnipeg.
And either way, the season ended with a playoff defeat in the first or second round for the sixth consecutive year (including each of the past three in the first). Many of the same players have had a hand in all or most of those defeats, and Chuck Fletcher’s decisions as GM have left room for questions but not much room for change.
Fair or not, the temperature of the Wild fan base suggests that advancing at least to the conference finals is pretty much the only way everyone associated with the team will be able to exhale and say, “See, this wasn’t all just a pleasant fool’s errand.”
But those familiar with Timberwolves history will remember there was a time when just making the playoffs wasn’t good enough. They made it seven years in a row — losing in the first round each time, with fans getting antsier each time — before finally breaking through to the conference finals in 2003-04 in that eighth trip. That was their last postseason berth until this season.
The middle class of sports — being good enough to reach the playoffs but not good enough to do much once you get there — can be a frustrating place.
But a diehard Wolves fan might tell a diehard Wild fan, “Be careful how you define success, because someday you might be happy just to make it to the playoffs.”