It wasn’t hard to find a theme at the Timberwolves practice facility Sunday. Coach Tom Thibodeau said the word over and over. Center Karl-Anthony Towns said Thibodeau wrote the word on the blackboard, before the team’s film session, “more than 10 times.”
That word: finish.
There are two games left — Monday vs. Memphis and Wednesday vs. Denver, both at Target Center — and nothing, really, has been decided.
In one of the tightest races for playoff position that most can remember, the Wolves enter Monday’s game tied with Denver at 45-35. Minnesota currently holds the eighth — and final — playoff spot over the Nuggets thanks to their 2-1 record so far in head-to-head games.
The Wolves are only one game behind New Orleans, San Antonio and Oklahoma City, which means both the No. 5 spot and not making the playoffs remain possibilities with two games to go.
“It’s great, I guess, for the league,” Thibodeau said. “It tells you how strong the West is, also.”
This is what’s certain: The Wolves will assure themselves of a playoff spot by winning each of their final two games. They would be in even with a loss Monday if they won Wednesday against the Nuggets.
The Wolves can clinch a playoff spot Monday with a victory over Memphis if San Antonio beats Sacramento and Denver loses to Portland.
But all the Wolves can do is focus on what they have to do to beat a Memphis team they are 0-2 against this season. The second of those two losses came at Target Center on March 26. The Grizzlies have been a thorn for the Wolves for a while, winning the past four games between the two and 25 of the past 32. On March 26, center Marc Gasol had 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
To change that? Finish.
Hence Sunday’s theme.
“The whole focus was just getting ready for Memphis,” Thibodeau said. “Be ready to go. We have to finish things. … If we’re asking you to block out, block out. If we’re asking you to set a screen, set a great screen. Finish things. We do that, the results will take care of themselves.”
That message resonated. In Thursday’s 100-96 loss in Denver, the Wolves had a late lead that disappeared in large part because of the Nuggets’ offensive rebounding in the closing seconds.
The return of Jimmy Butler from injury made a palpable difference in Friday’s 113-96 victory over the Lakers in Los Angeles.
Now it’s time for the rest of the team — particularly the young players — to follow Butler’s lead and finish the season strong.
“It’s a message he wanted to get to us [Sunday],” Towns said. “And we understand what he’s saying. We have to finish this race. We have to finish what we started, get ourselves in the playoffs.”
Said Andrew Wiggins: “We need to get the 50-50 balls, the balls that result in winning plays. Rebounding, in Denver, that was huge. All the 50-50 plays down the stretch we didn’t get.”
The team’s first playoff appearance since 2004 hangs in the balance.
“I’d rather not to have to worry about it,” Towns said of the team’s precarious position. “But we put ourselves in this position. We have to go out [Monday] and play one of our best games to get a win, and then we have Denver coming to town.”
Then he smiled. “Last time I had two games that mattered a lot, it didn’t end well,” Towns said, referring to the postseason run he had in his one season at the University of Kentucky. “Let’s hope this one goes right.”