The Wolves’ loss to Golden State Tuesday at Target Center — the team’s fourth in a row — made any playoff talk mathematical in nature. The eight-team Western Conference field is all but set, with the eighth-place Los Angeles Clippers seven games clear of Sacramento.
But players and coach Ryan Saunders were not sounding like a team just playing out the string.
Karl-Anthony Towns talked about not letting up, about pushing for the playoffs until the team is eliminated, then playing hard even after that happens.
“We have to play for the playoffs next year,” he said. “Get better every game. It’s been a hard year, but no excuses. We’re pros. We get paid to play the game.”
Said Andrew Wiggins: “It’s our job to go out and compete every night. To fight. We’re all family here, and you want to fight for your family.”
Saunders was asked if the team would consider simply sitting its several injured players for the final 11 games.
“You always want to put forth the best team,” Saunders said. “And that’s something I believe in, and always shines through in the end.”
Even so, the combination of injuries and the team’s schedule down the stretch could conspire to help the team come draft lottery time.
Robert Covington, Jeff Teague, Derrick Rose and Luol Deng have all missed multiple consecutive games, with Covington’s 34-game absence being the longest. All four are listed as out again for Thursday’s game. In the second quarter Tuesday backup forward Taj Gibson injured his left calf and did not return. He’s listed as questionable against Charlotte.
Of the final 11 games, four are on the road, where the Wolves have lost eight straight. After this two-game road trip at Charlotte and at Memphis, the Wolves will play current playoff teams in eight of their final nine games, including Golden State, Philadelphia, Portland, Oklahoma City, Toronto and Denver.
A tweaked NBA draft lottery will make its debut this year, one designed to dissuade teams from absolutely tanking. The new system offers the three teams with the worst record the same odds at securing one of the top four picks. The new lottery will also determine the top four spots, one more than the previous system.
After Tuesday’s games, the Wolves were 32-39, owners of the third-best record among the 14 teams currently in lottery position. With the 12th-worst record in the league, the Wolves would have a 7.2 percent chance at winning a top four pick in the lottery and just a 1.5 percent shot at the No. 1 pick — presumably the big prize of Duke’s Zion Williamson.
But there is a jumble of teams packed together. For example, the Wolves are a half-game better than Charlotte, their Thursday night opponent. After Tuesday’s games Charlotte (31-39), the Lakers (31-40), New Orleans (31-42) and Washington (30-41) were the four teams just ahead of the Wolves in the lottery order.
If the Wolves were to move from, say, 12th to eighth in the lottery pecking order, their chances at a top four pick would improve to 26.2 percent and their chance at the No. 1 pick would jump to 6 percent. Those are still long odds, but they would be markedly improved.
But the players, and Saunders, said they aren’t thinking about that.
“We just want to win,’’ Wiggins said.
Saunders talked Tuesday about how hard his players — his healthy players — are working. Looking to secure the head coaching job going forward, he would benefit from a strong finish to the season. Giving into a tough schedule or a beat-up roster isn’t something he thinks about. With seven of their final nine games at home, he pledged to put his best roster out every night.
“Our fans deserve that,” he said.