There’s no question that the Timberwolves front office, coaching staff and players all expected to have a better record than 20-34 this far into the season, but the team’s play last week showed just how maddening it can be when it comes to consistency.

The Wolves are 8-8 over their past 16 games. Coming off a 112-109 victory Wednesday over Toronto, a team that is 32-22 and in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, they followed it Friday with a terrible performance in a 122-106 loss to New Orleans, which is 21-33 and battling the Wolves, among other teams, for the final playoff spot in the West.

The Wolves’ biggest issue has been defense, and following Friday’s loss coach Tom Thibodeau called out what he sees is a lack of effort from his team.

“You know, you have to do it every day, you have to do it every night, it has to be consistent,” he said. “Right now we’re down a guy [Zach LaVine], so, you can never underestimate how hard you have to play on every possession, and if there’s a loose ball you have to be the first to the floor, if there’s an opportunity to take charge, you have to take charge, you have to hit, you have to fight.

“It’s not easy to win in this league, and if we’re not going to do the little things, it’s going to be impossible to win. We’re shorthanded, we have to play with intensity … if you do, you can beat anybody. It’s that simple. You can’t take a day off, a play off, a possession off, you got to go.”

Playoffs still within sight

Earlier last week, Thibodeau said that for a team as young as this one, it’s all about finding incremental improvement every single day, regardless of wins and losses. And though the have the sixth-worst record in the NBA, they entered Saturday a mere 4½ games out of the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference with 28 games to play. But they have failed to take advantage of their current six-game homestand, going 1-3 approaching Sunday’s game against Chicago, Thibodeau’s old team.

Thibodeau said he wants players to focus on daily improvement first, adding, “We’ve put ourselves in position [to chase a playoff spot] but we have to come through this stretch with a lot more toughness.

“The big thing is to be balanced defensively, and I think it starts with Karl-[Anthony Towns] and Andrew [Wiggins]. They have to set the tone for that. Offensively I think we have been very good all season, our guys are really sharing the ball well, but defensively we have to have more consistency.”

The stats back up Thibodeau’s thoughts. Entering Saturday, the Wolves were 11th in the NBA in offensive rating, averaging 107.1 points per 100 possessions. But their defensive stats remain lackluster, as they were tied for 24th in the league, allowing 108.7 points per 100 possessions.

And now the Wolves’ challenge figures to be much greater, with LaVine out for the year because of a torn knee ligament suffered Feb. 3 at Detroit.

“That’s a tough one. Yeah, it is a terrible loss, but you know the thing about this league is, it’s a part of the league,” Thibodeau said. “We feel terrible for Zach. He’s such a great guy, on top of being a terrific player, and he was having a heck of a season. But he’ll bounce back from this. It’s a tough blow, but he’s a mentally tough kid, he’s already talking about attacking the rehab and getting ready for his comeback.”

Towns, Wiggins need growth

Thibodeau elaborated on what he has seen from Wiggins and Towns, two of only four NBA players 21 or younger to be averaging over 20 points per game this season — Towns averages 23.7 points per game, Wiggins 22.5. Despite those stats, Thibodeau still sees two incomplete players, and the team’s record reflects that.

“[Wiggins] has made some really big shots for us, gotten comfortable in that role,” Thibodeau said. “But the challenge for him and Karl is to be more complete. We need Wig to rebound better, we need Karl to defend better. And if they can do that, I think we’ll win some games.”

Does he see a ceiling for Towns?

“It’s whatever he wants it to be,” Thibodeau said. “As long as he continues to work the way he is, and the challenge is he has to lead defensively. He has to be the anchor of the defense and he’s still learning from that standpoint. But he continues to get better and better. He’s a great worker. He’s in early, he stays late. He’s tireless. He wants to be great. He wants the team to be great. He has to lead by example and do it day in and day out and continue to learn and study the league and improve. But offensively he’s as gifted as they come.”

When asked what it will take to make the playoffs, Thibodeau, who is known around the NBA as a defensive guru, stayed on that side of the ball.

“The big thing is the defense. We have to, we work on it every day, but we still have a long way to go and we have to continue to work at it,” he said. “When you lose a guy like Zach, you’re losing a lot of scoring and playmaking and that sort of thing, but the way you try to overcome that is with your defense, your rebounding, low turnovers and sharing the ball. Everyone is capable of doing those things, so that’s what we’re going to have to do to have a chance to be successful.”

Jottings

• The Timberwolves own their first-round pick in this year’s NBA draft, and they also will have a second-round pick from the Rockets as long as it’s outside the first 45 picks of the draft, which seems likely with Houston having a great season. The 2018 draft is trickier, since if the Wolves finish outside the first 14 picks — meaning if they make the playoffs next season — their pick would most likely go to Atlanta in the trade for Adreian Payne almost exactly two years ago.

 

• One of the few undrafted standouts on the Gophers men’s hockey team is Vinni Lettieri, who entered Saturday’s game at Ohio State third on the team in scoring with 27 points on 13 goals and 14 assists. The Minnetonka product will be in a great position as a free agent, able to sign with any NHL team after the season.

 

• Former Twins pitcher LaTroy Hawkins will be a special assistant to Twins General Manager Thad Lavine. Hawkins said four other teams offered him a similar position. Asked if he can help this pitching staff, he said: “I hope so. Hopefully the things I’ve learned over my 25 years in baseball, I can point to some of these young guys and help them be able to make that next transition in their career.”

 

• Former DeLaSalle standout Reid Travis had a somewhat slow start to his basketball career at Stanford but is now playing great, entering Saturday averaging 17.2 points and 8.5 rebounds, both team highs, in 29.2 minutes per game. In his previous two games, Travis had back-to-back totals of 26 points, coming in a 81-75 victory over Utah and a 74-67 loss at No. 9 Arizona.

 

• Two players from Marshall, Minn., population 13,680, will be on the Gophers football team in 2017. One is incoming freshman Blaise Andries, an offensive lineman regarded as the best recruit in the state. The other is Drew Hmielewski, a wide receiver, who also lettered in baseball and basketball at Marshall but didn’t play for the Gophers in 2016 because of injury.

Sid Hartman can be heard Monday and Friday on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m. E-mail: shartman@startribune.com