After all of the dramatic moves, all of the measurable improvements, the Timberwolves find themselves on a familiar path. They are a terrible defensive team in danger of missing the playoffs.
A 129-120 loss to Houston on Sunday night at Target Center left them eighth in the Western Conference standings, meaning the Wolves are a bad week away from burying themselves in the playoff race, or one good week away from a mismatch with the Rockets or Golden State in the first round.
Wolves owner Glen Taylor hired Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden to alter the course of one of the worst franchises in U.S. professional sports. Thibden decided not to slowly guide a talented young roster toward long-term success. They decided to win now.
The sentiment was admirable; the execution remains in doubt.
They traded for Jimmy Butler, signed Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford, and played their starters extended minutes. Thibden decided to go for it, which means that missing the playoffs this year would be far worse than missing it in the previous dozen seasons, when the Wolves were either hopeless or engaging in a slow rebuild.
Given the raised stakes and the team’s naked ambition, even making the playoffs might prove less than satisfying, if the result is getting blown out by Houston or Golden State.
The Wolves should make the playoffs, even after their two losses this weekend, especially if they beat the Clippers at home Tuesday. The hard part of the schedule is over. Six of their remaining 11 games will be against teams with losing records, including two against a horrible Memphis team.
If you are a long-suffering Timberwolves fan — and there is no other kind — would sneaking into the playoffs and getting swept be satisfactory, after Thibden’s win-now moves?
Thibodeau brought to Minnesota a reputation as a defensive wizard whose offensive savvy was underrated. That has turned out to be half-true.
His offense has performed efficiently, even if it sometimes looks clunky. The Wolves have scored well for a team lacking quality three-point shooters.
Defensively, they have been frighteningly bad all season, failing to grasp what opposing offenses are trying to do to them, getting beat in transition and often missing assignments, causing Thibodeau to erupt.
“Where we are right now, the fight has to be greater,’’ Thibodeau said. “The competition should bring out the best in you. … The effort and concentration has to be better.’’
Karl-Anthony Towns said of his team’s second-half comeback: “If we had played like that for four quarters, we would have won this game.’’
Sunday night, the Wolves spent three quarters seeming surprised that the Rockets, a team that plays fast and shoots as many three-pointers as possible, would play fast and shoot as many three-pointers as possible.
Had the Wolves played optimally, they still might have lost. They produce tough twos; the Rockets thrive on easy threes.
At the beginning of the season, the Wolves’ goal had to be making the playoffs, then making something of themselves in the playoffs. Butler’s knee injury could be cited as the cause of the Wolves’ current woes, but they were a bad defensive team even with Butler, their most versatile defender, on the court.
Before the game, Butler told reporters that he felt soreness in his knee before he suffered the injury. It was an interesting admission from a player who never complains about the minutes he plays under Thibodeau, and who is the coach’s primary ambassador in the locker room.
Butler probably meant nothing by it, but he raised the specter of a story line that annoyed Thibodeau in Chicago: His willingness to play his starters more than most coaches.
Butler hopes to be back for the playoffs, but another loss to Houston raises an all-too-familiar question:
Will this Timberwolves season wind up being nothing more than another failure?