By just about any measure the Timberwolves' progress can be gauged.

Their victory over Washington Monday was their third in four games. Minnesota is 7-3 in its past 10 games, with the league's second-best defensive rating and the best net rating over that stretch.

But, after he had scored 39 points with 13 rebounds against Washington, center Karl-Anthony Towns said the best proof of improvement can be seen down the stretch of recent games.

While winning three of four games, the Wolves beat the Los Angeles Clippers, the Golden State Warriors and Washington, three elite playoff-bound teams.

Against the Clippers, the Wolves took a big lead into the fourth quarter and never let the Clippers back in the game.

In Friday's victory over the Warriors, the Wolves let a 14-point lead early in the fourth quarter slip away, but they managed a win over the defending Western Conference champions.

Monday the Wolves led by 13 with 8:48 left. The Wizards trimmed that lead to five, but a Towns three-pointer stemmed the tide and essentially iced the game.

If there were a theme to the Wolves earlier this season, it was a penchant for losing big leads; the Wolves still lead the league with 15 losses in games in which they had a 10-point lead or more.

But now there is a different trend.

"I think I've been talking all year to you guys, the discipline we need to win big games against big-time opponents, it is something that was growing," Towns said.

"It took time. And now I think we're showing, late in the game, fourth quarter, we really lock down on defense. We're finding ways to get stops."

The problem is, it might have come too late. The Wolves are 3 ½ games behind Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with just 16 games remaining on the schedule. The Wolves are done playing Denver this season, and Portland is ahead of the Wolves, as well.

Perhaps the best chance the Wolves have is to hope Denver falters and it comes down to the Wolves and Blazers, who will face each other three more times.

"We can't make any mistakes going forward," Ricky Rubio said.

"We took a really bad step backwards in Milwaukee [a loss to the Bucks Saturday]. We know every game is just very important for us."

The good news is the Wolves are starting to put games away down the stretch of tight games.

"We're learning," Rubio said. "We're gaining experiences. It's working. I think we're controlling more of the tempo of the game. Right now, it seems like we're playing some of the best basketball in the league. We're competing. Not just competing — we're winning games.

''That's what this team is supposed to do. But it's a great feeling when you go out there and you know you can beat everybody."

Feeling the love

Rubio, who had 22 points and a franchise-record 19 assists in Monday's victory over Washington, has been impressed with recent Wolves home crowds. As the Wolves were putting away the Wizards down the stretch Monday, Rubio waved his hands to encourage the fans.

"It feels great," he said. "I'm in my sixth year here and haven't felt that since my rookie year. The fans have been great, but right now they're awesome. We're giving them a reason to come here and cheer for us."