The Minnesota Timberwolves' Turnaround May Be Too Little and Too Late
It seems like nobody in the NBA's Western Conference is particularly interested in winning the eighth and final playoff spot.
But one unlikely squad has thrown their name into the mix, even if the lights seem to be dim at the end of their tunnel.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have placed themselves into the race for the 8 seed out west, even if it may be too little too late.
They even took the mighty Spurs (at full strength) to overtime before ultimately losing 97-90.
Yes, they are only one game over .500 since the All-Star break but how they have began to play is most important.
Finally, Minnesota is starting to resemble a Tom Thibodeau-coached team. Over the 11-game stretch, they have had the 9th-best offense and 10th-best defense in the league, resulting in a plus-4.5 net rating.
The uptick in defense is truly shocking. Prior to the break, the Wolves were allowing 108.3 points per 100 possessions, which was eight-worst in the league. Suddenly becoming one of the best defenses in the league has been a shock to pretty much everybody considering their play throughout the season on that side of the ball.
It's no secret that Thibodeau is a defensive-minded coach who drills schemes and assignments into his team's brain's no matter what the score is. The time under Thibodeau to gain an understanding of his scheme has taught patience and stability defensively to Minnesota's fleet of young talent and athleticism.
Harnessing that athleticism into defensive discipline is where Minnesota has struggled, but if this trend continues, this improved version of the Wolves would be enough to make the Warriors or Spurs sweat.
To the surprise of no one, Karl-Anthony Towns has been downright unreal. The second-year Kentucky product is averaging 28.3 points, 14.6 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game over the recent 11-game stretch. It is easy to forget that this kid is only 21-years old in his second NBA season and that he's still figuring this whole NBA thing out, which speaks to his ceiling as a player.
There's another player having a huge impact, playing perhaps the best ball of his career (no, it isn't Andrew Wiggins).
Ricky Rubio is the catalyst of the Wolves' run at the postseason. The Minnesota point guard is putting up 16.1 points, 10.8 assists, and 4.5 rebounds per game during the recent run, in which they are outscoring opponents by six points per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Rubio's shooting is up across the board during this recent run as well. His 48.0% from the field is up from 38.6% prior to the run. He's made an impressive 42.9% (2.5 attempts per game) of his threes during the last 11, up from 28.1% on 2.5 attempts before the brilliant 11-game stretch.
If that's not enough, Rubio was shooting 29.3% on what NBA.com considers catch-and-shoot threes and 43.4% on pull-up two-point field goals. Post All-Star break those numbers have jumped to 55.6% and 54%, respectively.
With Zach LaVine's season-ending injury, Rubio's shooting uptick has helped keep the Minnesota offense afloat. His ability to hit pull-ups has increased the efficiency in which Rubio now orchestrates the pick-and-roll.
Rubio has been excellent defensively as well. He's faced a murderer's row of guards: Stephen Curry, John Wall, and Chris Paul -- you may have heard of those guys -- holding them to a combined 19-52 shooting from the floor (36.5%).
Running Out of Time
Minnesota only has 14 games left to overcome a 4.5-game deficit to the Denver Nuggets (the current 8 seed).
Sadly for them, the teams they are competing with for the final playoff spot have been playing well. Denver is 8-5 since the break, the Portland Trail Blazers are 8-4, and the Dallas Mavericks are 7-5.
For Minnesota to make the playoffs, they are going to need a ton of help.
Our algorithms give them just a 1.1% chance to make the playoffs, meaning the Nuggets (40.9%), Blazers (53.3%), and Mavericks (3.2%) would all need to experience some turbulence and the Wolves would need to continue playing their best ball of the season.