Timberwolves veteran guard Jamal Crawford deemed the season that just was a “success” while young star Andrew Wiggins chose to call it an “improvement” instead.
By whatever evaluation, the Wolves’ 47-victory regular season and first-round, five-game playoff loss to Houston were important experiences for a franchise that hadn’t made the postseason since 2004.
Before ending that drought, the Wolves played for weeks in games that often felt — and were officiated — like playoff games. Only an overtime victory over Denver on the regular season’s final night allowed them to play on.
All of it was new for Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyus Jones and five other roster-eligible players who’d never reached the playoffs.
“It’s huge,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The last month of the season was really good for us because of how tight the race was. In many ways, it was similar to playoff experience. Having the final game of the season mean so much — whether you were going to get in or not get in — had a Game 7 feel to it. That helped us going in, and then to measure yourself against the Rockets with their record and season, it was good. We learned a lot from that.
“We can take the lessons learned and move forward.”
The Wolves often outplayed the Rockets during the best-of-seven series, but they were undone by three lopsided quarters. Each time, in Games 2, 4 and 5, the Rockets’ three-point shooting swept them away.
“A disappointing way to lose, that third quarter,” Wiggins said after Wednesday’s 122-104 Game 5 loss. “The whole year we learned what it takes to win, what it takes to make the playoffs and this is just a taste. Now we have to learn how to win in the playoffs because winning is hard. We’re just learning what we need to do to win — the stuff that works, the stuff that doesn’t work — because the regular season is totally different from the playoffs.”
Wiggins, Towns and Jones all played in single-elimination NCAA tournament games, but the NBA playoffs are a different beast.
The Rockets stifled Towns in Games 1 and 2. Wiggins was the Wolves’ most consistent player in the first three games — when Houston prioritized stopping Towns and Jimmy Butler — but then shot 5-for-14 in each of the final two.
Jones played sporadically in the series because of Thibodeau’s shortened rotation and a sore knee that sidelined him in Game 4.
“It’s what I thought it was going be like, but I wasn’t exactly sure because I never played in the playoffs,” Wiggins said. “It was fun. It was competitive. It was physical. It’s good to be part of.”
Leading a playoff-starved franchise, Thibodeau acquired veterans Butler, Crawford, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson last summer and in March picked up Derrick Rose. He did so specifically with the playoffs in mind.
Gibson said he told his young teammates reaching the playoffs is “Step 1” and doing better next season is Step 2.
“With all those guys in the locker room, I learned a lot from them not only in the playoffs, but the whole season,” Towns said. “I learned a lot, especially in the playoffs, and I understand the difference of the postseason. We haven’t been there in 14 years and this is an experience we needed to take that next step.”
Third or fourth in the West much of the season, the Wolves made the playoff road tougher by losing twice to Phoenix and Memphis and once to Orlando, Atlanta, Brooklyn and Chicago. Just one victory more could have moved them up three spots.
“They know what it takes to get yourself to the playoffs,” Butler said after Wednesday’s game. “Now we’ve got to figure out what it takes to win whenever we get there, no matter what seed we are. That’s what we’re expected to do. I’m proud of everybody.”
Crawford praised the growth he said he saw all season from his young teammates. He also called the team’s 16-victory improvement impressive and a playoffs return important.
“It was good for the city, good for the young guys to experience what it’s like to play for a winning team,” Crawford said. “It’s different from doing big things on a team that’s not that good to doing big things on a team that is good.
‘‘Overall, from where we came to now, that’s a big job. Teams don’t make that kind of a jump in a year. It’s very, very rare, so I think it was a successful season.”