WASHINGTON – There are certain things upon which Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau insists, one of which is urging his players never to look forward or back and instead concentrate only on the next game.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t watch scores from across the Western Conference as they come in nightly.
Nor does he want his players to ignore what’s happening around them in an uber-competitive chase for the final five playoff spots in the West.
“It’s important not to get lost, but also understand what’s in front of you,” Thibodeau said. “This is your business, so you want to be aware. Everyone is watching games. You want to know what’s going on in the league. It’s part of studying and knowing your opponent well.”
The Wolves won their second consecutive game with Tuesday’s fourth-quarter comeback at Washington that followed a Sunday afternoon home victory over defending NBA champion Golden State.
They rallied from 10 points behind with fewer than 10 minutes to go to beat the Wizards on a night when rivals Oklahoma City, New Orleans, San Antonio, Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers all won as well. The only team in pursuit of playoff spots three through eight that lost: Denver.
“We watch every night,” Wolves veteran forward Taj Gibson said. “You try to go hard to win your game and then watch the scores around. You’re either like, ‘Yes!’ or ‘Oh, man, c’mon.’ But you can’t depend on any other team to help you win. You go out there and do the best you can with the schedule you’ve got.”
Rough stretch nearing end
The schedule dealt the Wolves has them headed to San Antonio for a Saturday game, their sixth in a daunting eight-game stretch. By the time it ends Tuesday, they’ll have played at Portland, Utah, Washington and San Antonio and faced Boston, Golden State, Houston and the Clippers at home.
After they lost to the Trail Blazers, Jazz and Celtics for their only three-game losing streak this season, the Wolves on Sunday beat a Warriors team that played without Stephen Curry and then overcame the Wizards.
That’s when starters Nemanja Bjelica and Andrew Wiggins went a combined 8-for-8 from the field after they had been 6-for-22 before that.
Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns also provided two winning plays — a clutch three-point shot and nimble defense beyond the three-point line that forced Bradley Beal into a bad pass that Jeff Teague stole and slammed down with two hands for the night’s final punctuation.
And still the Wolves are where they were at Sunday brunch: In sixth place.
“The West is loaded,” Thibodeau said. “Every night you have to bring it. Even with teams that are so-called out of it, they’re playing great. They’re fighting. Those aren’t gimmes. You’ve got to earn your wins.”
Houston and Golden State have distanced themselves from the Western Conference field, and Portland threatens to do the same in that third spot with their current 10-game winning streak.
Two teams from among the Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Thunder, Nuggets, Jazz, Spurs, Clippers and Wolves won’t make the playoffs.
Not long ago, San Antonio was third in the West. A three-game losing streak dropped them to 10th, and they’re currently ninth after the Spurs won Tuesday and Denver lost to the Los Angeles Lakers.
“That’s how the league is, especially on the West Coast because everybody is neck and neck,” Gibson said. “That’s why every matchup, every time we go against each other is real important. You’ve got to try to beat them out.”
Hard on the nerves
Bjelica said the path forward to the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2004 is simple: Just win the next game.
“To be honest, for us it is better just to prepare for every game,” Bjelica said. ”We have to because the West teams are so close. It’s too much to think about who’s going to beat who. We just have to take care of ourselves and we’re in a good way.”
That’s easier said than done when the latest result is just an internet click away. Thibodeau constantly reminds that all 82 games are worth the same, but at this time of year a victory such as Sunday’s over the Warriors feels like it weighs a bit more.
“It’s nerve-racking,” Gibson said. “But when it goes your way, it’s like Christmas every day. It’s really good because you circle some of those games [such as the Golden State game] because you know they’re going to be really, really tough games, like playoff-style games where it’s going to come down to the last two shots and it’s about which teams can execute better.
“Those are playoff-style games and that’s what it’s all about.”