SACRAMENTO, CALIF. – To reach the NBA playoffs, the Timberwolves must chase down three other teams before they worry about catching and surpassing Denver for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.
Now with 22 games remaining, the Wolves stepped forward with Monday night’s 102-88 victory over a Sacramento team that also is trying to fight the good playoff fight, even after trading All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins last week.
Young stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns stretched their streaks of 20-point outings by another game each. Towns had 29 points and 17 rebounds, his third consecutive 25/15 games and the longest such streak since Kevin Love did so for the Wolves four consecutive games midway through the 2013-14 season.
The Wolves trail Denver by 2½ games and Sacramento by one. But they must catch Portland and Dallas as well in the season’s final six weeks.
“These games count as double games,” Wolves guard Ricky Rubio said after an 11-assist, nine-point night. “We know we have Portland coming two or three times. We’ve got Sacramento one more time. These are games that are must win.”
They also might be the ones with the most importance for Rubio and the Wolves this late in the season since his rookie year, six seasons ago.
“They definitely feel more different than they did at the beginning of the year,” said Wiggins, who also has reached 25 points in nine consecutive games after Monday’s 27-point , 4-steal game. “Right now, we need these games. A game like this, they were in front of us. We need a game like this to keep going forward.”
Thirteen years removed from the playoffs themselves, the Wolves overwhelmed a Kings team trying to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2006 with the likes of Kosta Koufos, Willie Cauley-Stein, Ben McLemore and rookie Buddy Hield now that Cousins is gone and Rudy Gay is out for the season.
The Wolves trailed by eight points early, but led by as many as 21 in the closing quarter. They changed the game with an 18-4 run second quarter. They outscored the Kings 40-19 in the quarter after they had scored just 20 in the first quarter.
“That’s what turned it,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said of a second quarter in which he credited reserves Nemanja Bjelica, Tyus Jones and Kris Dunn for energizing a team that had started sluggishly. “They got us going.”
Leaders 60-44 at halftime, the Wolves repelled a 12-0 Sacramento run in the third quarter, turning the Kings away after they pulled within seven points. They did so by scoring six unanswered points, starting with Wiggins’ tough contested jumper made, and Sacramento never got within single digits again.
Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns stretched their streaks of 20-point outings by another game each.
Jones again provided valuable minutes alongside both Rubio and Dunn, which was Thibodeau’s counter move to Kings coach Dave Joerger’s decision to play a small lineup.
Bjelica provided his fourth career double-double and his first this season, finishing with 10 points and 12 rebounds. He was a team-high plus-27.
“We played good basketball, team basketball,” Bjelica said. “Everybody did their job. We just need to continue to play like this.”
Wiggins’ extended the longest 20-point scoring streak in franchise history to 18 consecutive games when he turned Rubio’s alley-oop into an athletic dunk. That helped push the Kings away midway through the third quarter after they pulled within 63-56.
Wiggins’ streak is two games longer than what Kevin Garnett did twice in his 12-year Wolves career and three more than Towns’ current streak, which reached 15 games Monday.
Towns put the exclamation point on the victory with a one-handed, alley-oop dunk that gave the Wolves a 101-84 lead with 2½ minutes left.
Normally, Thibodeau says he wants his team to blot out all “noise” and focus on what’s ahead of them each day. But he did acknowledge before the game that he wants his players to keep their eyes on the playoff ball, to an extent.
“It’s our business,” he said. “You’ve got to know what’s going on, but you also have to make sure how you prepare for each day. That’s a routine and a habit you have to build.”