Saturday marked a turning of the page in the Timberwolves schedule.
Entering that game against Houston, seven of the Wolves’ previous 10 games were against teams currently out of playoff position.
Saturday marked the first of a stretch of eight of nine games against teams in line to make the playoffs at their current pace.
The beginning of this chapter of the Wolves’ season didn’t get off to the best of starts. Houston dominated them for a 139-109 victory.
“In order to not fall too far, we have to be able to compete against these teams,” Robert Covington said. “Them being already in playoff contention, we just got to continue to develop.”
But the time for that is short. The teams included in this next run of games include Oklahoma City on Monday at Target Center, then a home-and-home with Indiana, though the Pacers will still be without guard Victor Oladipo, who will return soon from a ruptured right quad tendon. After that comes Toronto, Denver, Houston again and the Thunder for a second time. Chicago is the only opponent lingering near the bottom of its conference’s standings.
“What better way to try and get into a playoff spot than to play against playoff teams?” guard Shabazz Napier said. “That can show you who you are as a unit. For me, I think it’s an exciting time for us to prove to each other we’re worthy of a spot. Of course the season is still long, but whenever you get to play against top tier teams, you want to play your best ball.”
The Wolves didn’t do that Saturday. Their defense had been a source of pride while Karl-Anthony Towns has missed the past 13 games. The offense has struggled but their ability to guard has kept the Wolves in a lot of these games. Houston just picked them apart. Perhaps the step up in competition that contributed to that. Perhaps it was just a bad night.
Whatever the case, it was a reminder of the kind of intensity and focus the Wolves are going to need as the competition gets better.
“The games are different game plans,” coach Ryan Saunders said. “You go into every game saying you have a chance to win. Just because a team is a playoff team doesn’t mean you amp up your intensity. We expect these guys to be intense and come in with a mind-set of following a game plan every time.”
Some game plans will be the same. The Wolves will face Denver, Oklahoma City and Houston each for a third time during the streak, not to mention the double dip with the Pacers.
Entering Sunday, the Wolves were 1½ games behind the Spurs and Grizzlies, who were tied for the No. 8 seed. Portland, Phoenix, the Kings are in the same range in crowded race for that final playoff spot behind the Thunder, which is in comfortable position at No. 7.
“You want to be able to force yourself into a situation where you’re not looking on the outside in,” Napier said. “As long as we put together some games and get back to defense and getting better, I think we should be putting our foot in the right place.”
But where they put their foot Saturday caused them to trip.