Wolves Wednesday: Zoning in on big picture

Point guard Ricky Rubio said the Timberwolves were looking forward to the future too much early in the season, but now they are only focusing on the next game.

Chris Nicoll/Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Ricky Rubio admitted Wednesday the Timberwolves’ focus may have been awry the first couple months of the season.

They weren’t complacent. On the contrary, they were intently zoned in — on the big picture, though, not the daily grind.

It’s the antithesis of everything coach Rick Adelman preaches. And figuring it out, his top point guard says, has made a world of difference.

"We just worry about next game, and that’s what we have been doing the last couple weeks," Rubio said after the Wednesday ahead of the first of four consecutive home games, this one against New York. "Maybe in the beginning of the season, we’re looking too much to the future, and we weren’t focusing on what’s next."

Sitting 4 1/2 games back of the Western Conference’s final playoff spot with 23 contests to try and make up that deficit, what’s next for Minnesota has arrived.

Perhaps that mindset is what allowed the Timberwolves to win six of their past seven games and go 4-1 during their longest road trip of the season. It wasn’t as prevalent while they hovered at or below .500 for most of the year and still haven’t won more than three games in a row.

It’s why Minnesota likely needs some help if it’s to reach the postseason.

"Time is kind of running out on us," power forward Kevin Love said. "We had a ton of games early on that could have gone our way that didn’t. So we just want to fight as much as we can, get as many Ws as we can, especially when we’re at home, because we feel we play better here."

The mood wasn’t as urgent during the campaign’s first few weeks. Talk centered on a grueling schedule fraught with back-to-backs against the West’s best, not a season-defining run to break a nine-year playoff drought.

Even Adelman, a constant proponent of the cliched "take things day by day" mantra, spent the first 30 games or so resigned to the fact the best his team could do was survive.

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If ever there was a time to thrive, though, it’s come.

"We know our run is now," Adelman said.

Or never.

Mighty Muhammad: Rookie small forward Shabazz Muchammad entered the season fully aware total readiness for any situation would be imperative.

But not even the 14th overall pick in the 2013 draft could’ve predicted this.

"I didn’t expect it to be this up-and-down," the UCLA product told reporters Wednesday, "but I’m very thankful for how I’m playing this season."

Muhammad spent the season’s first two months warming the bench, waiting for an opportunity behind Corey Brewer, Kevin Martin, Alexey Shved and less-flashy but more steady rookie Robbie Hummel. Then came his dominant NBA Developmental League performance from Jan. 7-12, a four-game stint in which he put up dominant numbers and reminded himself and the basketball world he can be a bona fide scorer.

He did so again Feb. 25 at Phoenix, playing a season and career-high 24 minutes and racking up 20 points. During the road trip, he essentially displaced Shved as a secondary wing option behind veterans Brewer, Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger, playing at least 11 minutes every time out.

It’s a welcome reward for a 21-year-old whom teammates have praised since training camp for his behind-the-scenes work ethic.

Muhammad himself put it simply.

"I’ve been playing, and we’ve been winning, so I think that is something that is great," he said. "I think all of us have a part in that."

Knickerbocker blues: Speaking before New York’s morning shootaround Wednesday, Knicks coach Mike Woodson and big man Amar’e Stoudemire both looked and sounded like worn, defeated men.

After helping New York surpass its bare-minimum expectations — the playoffs — the past two seasons, this year hasn’t gone quite as planned.

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Nowhere near it, in fact.

"When you come into a season after experiencing two wonderful seasons, something the Knicks hadn’t done in some years, and you go through a season like this, it’s been very, very challenging for me," Woodson said.

Said Stoudemire, who’s played on the past three Knicks teams, all of which reached the postseason: "It’s a game of struggles."

That’s what hoops have become for a team expected to contend for the Eastern Conference crown that’s lost seven games in a row and 13 of its past 15. Heading into Wednesday night’s contest, the Knicks were 21-40 and 6 1/2 games out of a playoff spot.

With Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony leading the charge, New York snapped in 2011 a six-year postseason skid and has made it back in the two seasons since then. Its chances to continue that streak appear awfully bleak at the moment.

Anthony continues to shine, ranking second in the NBA in scoring. But chatter surrounding a possible move elsewhere — he has a player option on his contract for next season — has overshadowed his powerful offensive output. Stoudemire’s contributions have dropped off considerably the past couple seasons as he’s battled injury and been replaced in the starting lineup.

The rest of the group simply hasn’t been up to snuff. Woodson, who came to New York in 2011 and coached the Hawks from 2004-10, has had a hard time figuring out why.

"We’re in games, we’re competing, and then all of a sudden, we forget how to compete," said the coach, who alluded to the fact his job may be in jeopardy barring a miraculous turnaround. "That’s strange as hell to me from a coaching standpoint.

"I’m not gonna quit . . .  I still think I was the guy for the job, and I still think I’m the guy for the job, and I’m gonna continue to work in that area."

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