MINNEAPOLIS – Karl-Anthony Towns describes the bottom half of the playoff race in the Western Conference as a swamp from which “only the real alligators will make it out.”
“We have to come out of the swamp alive,” Towns said during an interview late Sunday afternoon on national television.
Thanks in large part to Towns’ work on the court, the Timberwolves’ chances of making the postseason had increased following an impressive 109-103 victory over the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors before a sold out and raucous crowd of 18,978 at Target Center. This definitely qualified as a playoff atmosphere, although, in fairness, it’s a bit difficult to remember exactly what that feels like after so many years with no postseason play in Target Center.
Sunday marked the Wolves’ sixth game since star Jimmy Butler was lost to a knee injury that ended his regular season. The only chance he returns this season is if Butler’s teammates can put an end to Minnesota’s 13-year playoff drought.
In recent days, there had been some serious doubts about that.
After beating NBA bottom-feeders Chicago and Sacramento in the first two games Butler missed, the Wolves had lost a season-high three in a row, falling at Portland and Utah before giving a lifeless performance in a loss to the Boston Celtics on Thursday at Target Center.
The Portland loss started an eight-game stretch in which the Wolves will face teams that are above .500. The Warriors figured to stretch the Wolves’ losing streak to four, although Minnesota did catch a break when two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry sat out because of a right ankle injury and key reserve Andre Iguodala was sidelined because of a sprained left wrist.
That only left the Warriors with All-Stars Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson in the lineup. With Butler unavailable, the Wolves had to rely on ultra-talented Towns and the maddeningly inconsistent Andrew Wiggins.
Minnesota entered Sunday sixth in the Western Conference and with only a game-and-a-half cushion separating it from falling out of a playoff spot. Towns took it upon himself to make sure the tumble did not continue, finishing with 31 points and 16 rebounds. The All-Star center saved his best for the final quarter, scoring 14 points of the Wolves’ 25 points as the Wolves never trailed in the final 12 minutes after the score was tied at 84 following three quarters.
What made Towns’ performance even more impressive was that he found himself fighting off double teams for much of the game or being guarded by Green, who was named the NBA’s defensive player of the year last season.
“Guys were making a lot of plays for each other, but Karl stepped up, he knocked them down,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I thought he played with a lot of tenacity throughout the whole game.”
Wiggins went 0-for-3 from the field and scored only one point in 7 minutes, 33 seconds of playing time in the fourth quarter. But with the motivation of playing against the defending champs and being on national television, Wiggins’ effort was better than it is on many nights.
His 23 points were second to Towns as he made nine of 16 shots from the field and 2-of-4 from three-point range. He also grabbed five rebounds and had three assists.
“Andrew was great all night,” Thibodeau said.
Asked about seeing this version of Wiggins more often, Thibodeau didn’t hesitate in answering. “He’s got to do it, it’s in him,” he said. “I see it, I know he sees it. I think he’s played, for the most part, really well since the All-Star break. I want more. I want more aggressiveness. I want him to keep attacking. His teammates do, he gets going downhill it’s almost impossible to stop.”
It’s no secret that Wiggins is at his best when he’s going to the rim and what makes it so maddening is how often he settles for a jump shot. Wiggins admitted after Sunday’s game that, “I settle sometimes, I love my shot,” adding, “but I just have to stay aggressive, keep driving and putting pressure on the defense.”
So what changed Sunday? Wiggins said after making only 6-of-21 shots against the Celtics he told himself, “Just get to the rim early, get some easy ones and get going.”
The fact the strategy worked – Wiggins had nine points in the opening quarter as the Wolves took a 34-24 lead – should serve as the latest indication that Wiggins needs to change up his usual approach.
The Wolves, like Wiggins, will need to build off Sunday’s win because getting into the playoffs with Butler sidelined remains a difficult task. The Wolves are now 39-29, sitting in a tie for fifth in the conference with Oklahoma City, and are 1.5 games up on the eighth place Clippers.
“We had to come out with some urgency,” Towns said. “Desperation is the word I’m thinking of. We needed this win bad. … It’s a great win, it’s a great game but we’ve got a lot more to do.”