The Timberwolves are among eight teams vying for the final six spots in the competitive Western Conference and their playoff push continues Saturday with a visit to the San Antonio Spurs.
Minnesota (40-29) enters the game three days after a 116-111 win at Washington. After Karl-Anthony Towns recovered from a shot to the face to score a season-high 37 points, the Timberwolves were sixth and 1 1/2 games up on the Los Angeles Clippers, Spurs and Utah Jazz.
Despite being idle for three days, Minnesota is in fifth place, sandwiched between New Orleans and Oklahoma City.
“The West is loaded,” Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters. “Every night you have to bring it. Even with teams that are so-called out of it, they’re playing great. They’re fighting. Those aren’t gimmes. You’ve got to earn your wins.”
Minnesota is 4-3 since losing Jimmy Butler to knee surgery last month, with five of those games against winning teams. After Saturday, the Timberwolves get two more games against winning teams with encounters against Houston and the Clippers before playing six of their final 10 games against losing teams.
“We watch every night,” Minnesota forward Taj Gibson told reporters. “You try to go hard to win your game and then watch the scores around. You’re either like, ‘Yes!’ or ‘Oh, man, c’mon.’ But you can’t depend on any other team to help you win. You go out there and do the best you can with the schedule you’ve got.”
Among the games that various players might be glancing at during timeouts on Saturday are Houston-New Orleans, Denver-Memphis, Sacramento-Utah, and Detroit-Portland. Saturday’s game will tip off while New Orleans is in the third quarter and Denver is closing out the first quarter — a half-hour before Utah starts and 90 minutes before Portland tips off.
While the Timberwolves monitor those outcomes, they’ll see if Towns can generate another big game. He is averaging 26 points in his last five games and is attempting to get three straight 30-point games for the first time in his three-year career.
Minnesota will also be attempting to achieve two other things Saturday. A win will assure them of at least a .500 season, will be their second victory in the last 26 trips to San Antonio, and will snap an eight-game road losing streak in the series.
The Spurs (39-30) share the same record with the Jazz but would finish eighth based on the head-to-head tiebreakers with Utah. They are 1 1/2 games up on the Clippers.
San Antonio has won consecutive games for the first time since Jan. 28-30 after knocking off Orlando and New Orleans on Tuesday and Thursday. After holding the Magic to 34.1 percent shooting from the field in a 108-72-win, the Spurs held on for a 98-93 win over the Pelicans.
“For sure, big game,” guard Manu Ginobili told reporters after San Antonio did not make a basket for the final 5:55. “Still, we made many of the same mistakes we’ve made in the last month, losing leads very easily and stopping the flow of the game.
“We don’t execute as well down the stretch as we did before. So we have to work on it, but we kept fighting. Our defense really tightened up in the second half, and that’s the reason why we won that game.”
Before the two wins, the Spurs lost 11 of their previous 16 games and fell into 10th. Among those losses were games against New Orleans and the Los Angeles Lakers, where the Spurs squandered double-digit leads.
It almost happened again as the Spurs once led by 15 points before allowing the Pelicans to get within one, but LaMarcus Aldridge and Ginobili made free throws down the stretch.
“Yeah, it’s a live or die for us right now,” Aldridge told reporters after scoring 25 points. “So, you know, you’ve got to bring it every game. And these teams that we’re going to play, they’re fighting for their position, and their lives too. So tonight was tough, but guys competed and just made plays.”
The Spurs were without Kawhi Leonard, who missed his 60th game with a quad injury. Leonard has not played since Jan. 13 and is not expected to play.
Saturday is the third meeting between the teams. Aldridge scored 25 points in the season-opening 107-99 home win on Oct. 18, but Andrew Wiggins scored 26 points in Minnesota’s 98-86 home win on Nov. 15 that snapped San Antonio’s 14-game winning streak in the series.