If you can label a game for a team with a .400 winning percentage and 22 games remaining as a “must-win” contest, Monday’s Timberwolves game at Sacramento fit that description.
And, well, the Wolves played like it was a game they had to have, giving one of their most complete efforts of the season in a 102-88 victory that keeps them on the fringes, at least, of the Western Conference playoff race.
It’s an odd bit of good fortune that the Wolves have stumbled their way into this chase. Most years, a 24-36 record after 60 games would have us solely talking about the lottery. This year in the Western Conference, there are seven teams who are clearly going to make the postseason and another handful — including Minnesota — trying to make a run and steal the No. 8 spot with, say, 37 or 38 wins.
The Wolves are currently No. 5 in that group of six teams trying to claim one spot. Basketball Reference gives them a 5.1 chance of making the playoffs at this point and a 3.6 percent chance of winning the draft lottery to get the No. 1 pick.
The big problem I see is the schedule: the Wolves had many more of their easier games (and home games) at the front part of the season, when they were losing close games and looking disjointed in the process. At the end of the year, they’ll probably look back on home losses to the Nuggets, Hornets, Knicks and Pistons — all part of a 6-18 start — as culprits in a season that came up short of the playoffs.
Just eight of the Wolves’ final 22 games are at home. Broken down further, 11 of the last 15 are on the road. It’s hardly impossible to put together a winning streak away from Target Center, but the Wolves are 15-18 at home and just 9-18 on the road as of now.
That means the likely outcome is somewhere in the middle — no playoffs, and a decent lottery pick that isn’t at or near the very top — but at least the franchise heads into March with two possibilities instead of just the usual draft chatter.
If there is any hope the Wolves can gain the steam it takes to grab an unlikely playoff spot, it rests with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins — and particularly Wiggins, who has had a fantastic recent stretch that should garner him consideration for Western Conference Player of the Month in February.
The last time Wiggins scored fewer than 20 points in a game, Barack Obama was still president — Jan. 17 at San Antonio, when Wiggins was held to just 10 points.
Equally important (or perhaps even more so) is how Wiggins has been filling up other parts of the stat sheet lately. Most notably: he has at least one steal in each of his last 10 games and is averaging 2.1 steals per game in that span to go with his gaudy 30.2 ppg in the last 10.
Compare that to Wiggins’ first 50 games: he was still scoring (albeit not at such a high rate) with 22.1 ppg. But he was also averaging less than one steal per game (0.8).
In many cases lately, Wiggins has been stepping in front of cross-court passes to get his steals, leading to easy transition buckets. It’s part of an overall evolution in which Wiggins — who just turned 22, remember — seems to be seeing the game a step ahead of where he was even a couple months ago.
At the very least, Wiggins and the rest of the Wolves are getting to feel what it’s like to play meaningful games late in the season. Judging by Monday’s result, that pressure seems to suit them — and should make them eager to play more of these games in seasons to come.