Just a little more than a month ago the Timberwolves headed out west for a five-game road trip dealing with both general soreness and private frustrations.
Five games and five losses later the Wolves were 4-9. Jimmy Butler was soon gone, Robert Covington and Dario Saric arrived and things couldn’t be more different.
The Wolves are headed out west again. Portland and Golden State will start the four-game trip. The schedule looks similar. The team doesn’t.
The statistical U-turn the Wolves have taken is well-documented. While going 9-3 since the trade, the Wolves are first in the league in opponents’ shooting percentage (42.2), second in field goals allowed (36.8) and rebounds allowed (42.1).
“It’s a big difference,” said Andrew Wiggins, whose own personal renaissance has played out in recent games. “I feel like everything now is set in stone. We know what we’ve got to do to win, and we’re different defensively. We’re more active, we’re talking. Everyone is all over the floor, being more aggressive.”
The Wolves benefited greatly from their schedule. Coinciding with the trade, the Wolves played 10 of 12 games at home in a 23-day stretch that included only one back-to-back set of games. The new players were able to get comfortable both with their new team and their new city. There were opportunities to practice.
Covington wasn’t here before, of course. But even he knows this is a happier, closer team now.
“I can say guys are in different mind-sets,” he said. “Everyone is happy. Everyone is doing their job and is more comfortable. You see it on the court. It’s a matter of chemistry and everything is falling into place.”
And that’s why a road trip is also so timely. The Wolves (13-12) get to see how this plays on the road. Of the Wolves’ past nine wins only one — Portland — had a winning record as of Friday morning.
The Wolves used a home-centric schedule against a number of struggling teams to push back above .500. They have gained confidence in each other, cohesion on defense and have shown the ability to close out games, having come back from deficits of 15 points or more to win on consecutive nights for the first time since January 2012. It is the perfect time to see if the team can take the next step, on the road, against quality competition.
“We feel very good," Covington said. “We have the momentum heading into this West Coast trip. For us to be successful we’re going to have to win on the road.”
The Wolves are 2-8 on the road — with those two wins coming since the trade — but 0-7 on the road vs. Western Conference teams.
But things have changed since the last time they were in this position.
“I’m very confident,” Karl-Anthony Towns said. “We’re playing really well right now. The biggest thing for us right now is we’re executing on defense.”
And as Towns said, defense can carry a team when the offense hits a snag. During their 9-3 stretch it has. But will it on this four-game trip?
“Well, it’s a similar trip,” Taj Gibson said. “It’s going to be tough — we’re playing against some tough teams. It’s always tough going on the road. We got a new group of guys, new mentality. So, hopefully, we can bring the same energy we brought at home on the road. If you want to be talented, want to be a proven team, you have to win on the road. I think we have a good shot to get better.”