ORLANDO – The Timberwolves' games against Orlando and Detroit will have a lot to say concerning whether the Wolves max out their odds of retaining a top-three pick in the upcoming NBA draft or relinquish it to Golden State.
Any suspense over whether the Wolves would remain one game back of Orlando in the standings vanished in the first few minutes of Sunday's 128-96 victory when the Wolves opened a 15-point lead after the first quarter, doubled it by halftime and led by as much as 43.
Hard as it may be to believe for a team playing the lottery, the Wolves just had more talent on the floor than the ragged Magic, which traded its best players at the deadline and is fully engaged in the race to the bottom in a way the Wolves eschewed this season.
"We were just in that position," guard D'Angelo Russell said. "What the Magic are going through … you had a lot of movement, a lot of changes going on. It's hard to show up and beat a team. We were just going through that. As a team we know what that felt like."
That would be just spinning their wheels with no sense of direction until the season was over.
The Wolves hope Sunday's victory and the way they have approached the last six weeks of the season show that they have left those helpless days behind them.
They don't have the playoffs in their immediate future, but they don't have what Orlando has, at least. Karl-Anthony Towns had his way with a couple of guys named Mo and Moe (Bamba and Wagner) on his way to 27 points. Russell had the same, with eight assists, and Anthony Edwards had 16 points and 10 rebounds.
Their odds of retaining a top-three pick could fall from around 40% to 28% with a few victories in the final week of the season. If that means the Wolves generate positive momentum with the group they have now, that's a tradeoff the organization is willing to make.
The Wolves current are in a three-way tie for the fourth-worst record in the league. The Magic, Wolves and Cavaliers are all at 21-47 with four games remaining. Oklahoma City is 21-48 after a pair of weekend defeats. Detroit is 20-49 and Houston, which traded away James Harden early in the season, is 16-52. No other team has fewer than 27 victories.
"Winning is a lot more fun," coach Chris Finch said. "So when winning is fun everything is a lot easier to reinforce what you've been trying to sell because the guys can see it working a little bit. They're buying in. They're doing things that make themselves and their teammates better."
Added Towns: "These guys have just been growing. We've been such a young team all year, and these have been growing into themselves."
Towns had a productive night on Mother's Day, a hard day for him to play on. Before the game, cameras caught Towns embracing his father, Karl Sr., who was in attendance.
Towns' mother, Jacqueline, died last year of complications due to COVID-19, and he spent time away from the team on the one-year anniversary of her death in April.
"There is just a strength that has been instilled in me since I was young," Towns said. "My mom has in weird ways I feel prepared me for this moment to handle more than I ever thought I possibly could."
As he nears the end of this trying season that saw him deal with a wrist injury and his own COVID battle, Towns sounded optimistic about the future. No longer were the Wolves like the Magic were on Sunday. They weren't the ones with a helpless feeling about the direction of the franchise.
"This started with coach Ryan Saunders doing a great job of helping us, building us, giving time and just continually coaching us even through the bad," Towns said. "And coach Finch coming in and just utilizing his vision and taking what was there, building upon it.
"I think this is just amazing work from both coaches. Finch is amazing. Ryan, as well, I think deserves a ton of credit."
This has been a much more optimistic way to end a season than Towns has had of late.