SAN ANTONIO - One time zone away, referees ejected Phoenix’s Jared Dudley and Marquese Criss after each shoved down Utah’s Ricky Rubio. And the Suns are nearly 20 games out of the playoffs.
“It’s that time of year,” Wolves veteran guard Jamal Crawford said.
It’s a time of year when veteran forward Taj Gibson said he has seen the look change in the eyes of both young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins after the Wolves lost consecutive games at Portland and Utah two weeks ago.
“Those weren’t no laid-back kind of games,” Gibson said. “Portland, Utah, they were going hard. They really wanted it. The way both teams celebrated after they beat us, you know they’re in it to make the playoffs. There’s no more smiling, no more buddy-buddy stuff.”
The Wolves lost their next game — at home to Boston — and owned a three-game losing streak for the first time all season. But just when the Wolves were in danger of losing their way in the Western Conference’s competitive playoff race without injured Jimmy Butler, they beat NBA champion Golden State and Washington consecutively.
They did so with Towns dominating both games at times, to the tune of a 31-point, 16-rebound performance one afternoon and a 37-point, 10-rebound game two nights later.
They also did so after Wiggins and Nemanja Bjelica shot their team to victory against the Wizards — going a perfect 8-for-8 combined in the fourth quarter — after the Wolves trailed by 10 points with fewer than 10 minutes left.
“KAT has been dominant,” Wiggins said. “The last two games, he has been killing from start of game to finish of the game. Offensively, defensively, he has been a monster.”
Thibodeau called Towns “unbelievable” against the Wizards and praised Wiggins for his hustle and winning plays on both ends.
“They’re growing,” Thibodeau said. “That’s the best part about them being young. There’s room for a lot of growth the way they’re playing.”
Gibson said he has seen growth just these last two weeks and expects much more.
“The stakes were high and Karl turned it on,” Gibson said. “And you could see after that game in Utah that Wigs was like, we need to start winning these games. This is dire need and he turned it on. … I’m excited they understand this is an important point and they want to make the playoffs. First things first: You start winning games, then you make the playoffs and then you turn a whole new page in your careers.”
With eight teams chasing the West’s final six playoff spots, the Wolves can win a fourth season series against one of their competitors and put two games between them and the Spurs if they win at San Antonio on Saturday night.
The Wolves already have won season series against Oklahoma City, New Orleans and the Los Angeles Clippers and essentially have beaten Utah as well even if that series goes to a second tiebreaker, divisional record. The Wolves are 11-16 against Eastern teams this season, but have positioned themselves well for playoff qualification with a 29-13 record against the West that includes 9-4 within their own Northwest Division.
To be sure, these aren’t the playoffs, but they’re getting close.
“Everybody is playing like every game means something,” Crawford said. “You could see it through the TV [watching the Pelicans-Spurs], so I could only imagine what it’s like in person. Everybody is playing for something now: Some for No. 1 seed. Some for their playoff lives. Some ending the season with pride.”
Thibodeau saw the Spurs-Pelicans in person Thursday saw a game that was competitive but still not what you’ll find in the playoffs.
“That’s not contentious,” Thibodeau said, correcting a questioner. “You’ll see it when it gets contentious in the playoffs. There could be a fight on every play and that’s the way playoff basketball is. I like competition. If you play for stats, you’re missing what the great teams are all about.
“When you play to win, there’s nothing better when you have two great teams going at it, play after play.”