Like that mythical guy pushing the boulder, the Timberwolves still have lots of uphill work to do before they reach the playoffs this season, but Wednesday's 107-91 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers showed again that they're beating the rock, step by step.
The Wolves won for the seventh time in 11 games, and they did so against a Clippers team featuring Chris Paul and Blake Griffin back in the lineup together.
The last time these teams played, the Clippers played without either superstar and the Wolves prevailed by a mere three points in L.A. in January. This time, the Wolves won in both measurable and immeasurable categories, starting with the lopsided scoreboard, of course, but also including rebounding (50-36) and points in the paint (62-40).
More importantly, they bent a veteran, playoff-bound opponent's will to their own, building a 15-point, first-quarter lead and never allowing the Clippers to get closer than seven points in the third. They pushed on, all the way to a 20-point advantage in a tense, physical game in which they were tougher.
Tough enough that even young Tyus Jones received a second-quarter flagrant foul type 1 penalty for horse-collaring Clippers guard Austin Rivers.
When asked about senses of urgency Wednesday, Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, "I felt theirs. They were wolves, and we were not."
Rivers said his team's missed open shots early in the game sapped its spirit. Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio's commanding play from the start and Karl-Anthony Towns' 29-point, 14-rebound game that made him the second-youngest player in NBA history to reach 100 career double-doubles didn't help the Clippers' cause any, either.
Only Dwight Howard reached 100 double-doubles faster. Towns' streak of consecutive 20-point games reached 18, one shy of teammate Andrew Wiggins' franchise-best, 19-game streak that ended Saturday in San Antonio.
The Wolves now trail Denver by 2½ games for the West's final playoffs spot after the Wolves won the three-game season series from the Clippers and the Nuggets lost at home to Washington.
Towns was asked if his team feels like a playoff team, despite the long odds with Portland and Dallas also between them and the Nuggets with 19 games left.
"I think we're feeling like a team that's playing with confidence," Towns said. "I don't know what a playoff team feels like, but my wild guess I think we right now are playing with the confidence, with the demeanor of a playoff team. We've got to continue to build. We can still be a playoff team."
Rubio suggested the Wolves are playing their best basketball since he arrived in Minnesota six seasons ago.
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau can see the improvement, particularly defensively, in the statistics: They're now 13th in the league in points allowed, an improvement Thibodeau calls a "quantum leap." Their pick-and-roll defense is better. They've also won their past seven games by an average of 16.2 points, a differential he calls "significant" but "not where it needs to be" for the entire season.
"When you look at the past couple years and where we are now, it says we've made a big jump," Thibodeau said. "I think you have to get close to winning first, and then the winning happens. Right now, we're starting to understand that. To me, it's taking care of the little things. If we take care of all the little things, the big things take care of themselves. We say it all the time: The magic is in the work.
"There are no shortcuts to this. There's no easy way out. … There's a price to be paid for winning."