The Timberwolves came out of the NBA All-Star Game break rested, getting healthier by the day and sitting four games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
They are also still convinced that leapfrogging three teams to get to that spot is possible with only 25 games left in the season.
“We’re in a good position,” center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “It doesn’t matter about statistical things, individual things, stuff like that. We still have a great chance to make the playoffs. We just have to capitalize on the opportunity.”
Healthier at guard with the expected return of Tyus Jones, interim coach Ryan Saunders needs only the return of forward Robert Covington from a bone bruise in his knee to have a full complement of players, something the Wolves haven’t had in 20 games. Covington took limited part in practice Thursday but will not travel with the team for a coming back-to-back out of the break at New York (Friday) and Milwaukee (Saturday). Center Gorgui Dieng will also miss Friday’s game for personal reasons.
In a season that has included the Jimmy Butler distraction and ultimate trade, a coaching change from Tom Thibodeau to Saunders and a slew of injuries, there is still much to learn about this team and its immediate future, and only 25 games to get the answer. Here’s a look at questions that need answers down the stretch of the regular season:
Removing the interim tag?
Saunders is 8-9 since taking over the team. That’s not ideal, but it’s not bad when considering the injuries to Jones, Covington and guards Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague that left Saunders scrambling for lineups.
Saunders has proved himself able to adapt to his circumstances. He has gotten more out of forward Dario Saric than his predecessor and inserted him into the starting lineup. He has gotten productive minutes out of veteran forward Luol Deng, whose play while Andrew Wiggins was ill helped the Wolves win consecutive games heading into the break. He appears to communicate well with the team and approaches game situations with more pragmatism than Thibodeau.
Over the break, in a self-scout, Saunders and his staff emerged determined to sell the team on the impact even a little improvement on defense can mean for the team. By all accounts Thursday’s practice was memorably intense. Will that carry over into a quick sprint out of the break?
What’s Wiggins’ upside?
This, of course, has been the question with the sporadically effective forward for a while now. After Thursday’s practice, Wiggins — who said he enjoyed watching Towns at the All-Star Game — was asked if he would one day get there, too. That’s the goal, he said. And then he offered some honest self-analysis.
“This year and last year weren’t the best for me,” he said. “But I feel like, moving forward, I feel I could do better. I know I want to get better. I want to do whatever I can do to take the next step.”
Will full squad help defense?
Even Saunders, an assistant before taking over as interim head coach, said he doesn’t know exactly what he has in this team because of the injuries. That should change soon.
“Injuries make it hard, because Robert is so much of what we do,” Saunders said. “And Tyus, we value Tyus. Also take out Derrick and Jeff for significant games, and it’s one of those situations where you’d like to have everybody. We look forward to having the full complement of players.”
Judging from the intensity Saunders and Towns ascribed to Thursday’s practice, it appears the Wolves are eager to chase a playoff spot.
“We talked about how close we are to becoming a good defensive team,” Saunders said. “All it takes is one possession at times. We had some analytic data to express that to the guys. Guys tried to take that to heart [Thursday].”
Will it be enough?
“We play hard,” Towns said. “Even games we lost recently, we played really hard. It came down to some execution. And this break will help us mentally recharge, and get a chance for the coaching staff to implement some things they want to implement. And give us a chance to tighten some screws up.”