Sandell: Timberwolves have come to terms with lost playoff chances
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
MINNEAPOLIS -- It was a hard truth to swallow, but the Minnesota Timberwolves have come to terms with the fact the playoffs are no longer in the picture.
The understanding the franchise's nine-year playoff drought was likely to become 10 started to sink in after a deflating loss to the Knicks in early March. But it wasn't until Minnesota's latest slide earlier in the week -- three straight losses -- that the reality started to fully hit the Wolves.
The offseason will begin early again for the Wolves, but although the disappointment from failed expectations remains fresh, the year isn't over yet.
From here on out, the rest of the season comes down to silver linings and the search for signs of improvement that may validate the cries of "better luck next year." Their postseason hopes might be gone, but it isn't time to check out.
That is the message coach Rick Adelman has discussed with his team as the Wolves try salvage a few more positives out of the season's final stretch.
"We've talked about it. The playoffs are a real long shot ... But there is a privilege to playing in this league," Adelman said. "We've had a season where we've had some disappointments, but we never cashed out. We kept playing. We've responded. That's what we should be playing for. They have pride in themselves and the team, and there is no reason to even think anything else."
So what should the Wolves and their fanbase be looking to get out of the next few weeks?
For one, as Adelman insisted, keep it competitive
On Wednesday, Minnesota didn't look like a team that had already packed it in. The Wolves eventually took down the Kyle Korver-less Atlanta Hawks with a convincing 107-83 victory -- their 10th 20-point win. They did so behind a solid night from the starting lineup, including rookie Gorgui Dieng, who put up his fifth double-double in six games (15 points, 15 rebounds).
For what it is worth, the Wolves got about as much out of Wednesday's game as they could ask for at this juncture in the season.
"We needed to respond after those last three games," said forward Kevin Love. "The energy wasn't really there to start the game. Some of the guys were a little off it, including myself, at first. But we were able to pick back up. We needed a game like this in order to pick our spirits back up. It was good for us."
With the victory, the Wolves once again returned to the .500 mark (35-35). Not including Day 1 of the season, it is the 19th time the Wolves have held an even record this year -- a testament to their wildly inconsistent season. While a run back into contention would take a miracle, just finding enough stability to stay on the positive side of the win-loss column would be notable achievement in their final 12 games. It's a somewhat dubious statistic, but getting to the 40-win threshold would mark the first time the Wolves have done so in nine years.
The continued emergence of Dieng is also the type of promising storyline the Wolves are in need of taking stock in as the games come to a close. Dieng, who has started six games in place of injured center Nikola Pekovic, has drawn raves as of late with a 12.6 points and 14 rebounds per game average.
"He's awesome, man," guard J.J. Barea said after Dieng's latest double-double. "I'm so proud of him. He's been working all year. When the time came, he took advantage. He's aggressive to the ball. He's active. He's a smart kid."
Now the question is will we see fellow rookie Shabazz Muhammad get a chance at a similar breakthrough in the next few weeks? Muhammad played in only the last four minutes on Wednesday.
What next season may hold for the Wolves remains hazy, but after his team had little trouble handling the Hawks, Adelman's message about a strong finish stayed the same.
"I don't care what our record is or where we are in the season, we're trying to make them believe that we still have work to do," Adelman said. "We still have to get better as a team and individuals."