Full-Court Press: Timberwolves test the West

Wednesday morning, 10:45 a.m., Target Center, Minneapolis.

The Lakers shuffle into shootaround, their line single-file, their hoods up, chatter nonexistent. This is not a raucous group, not a particularly cheerful one, and when 39-year-old Steve Nash is doing squats deeper than those of any of his teammates during drills, you know there’s at least something of a problem.

Thus began a four-day stretch in Minnesota during which the Timberwolves faced the three tiers of the Western Conference playoff picture: the pretenders, the contenders and finally the aspirers. That is, the Lakers, Thunder and Grizzlies.

It would be a grueling stretch for any team, not just the battered Timberwolves, who are finally trying to integrate some players back into their lineup while also chasing 1,000 wins for coach Rick Adelman. Two weeks ago, to glance at this stretch on the schedule was to shudder; the quality would not be good, one had to think, and the games would no doubt be blowouts.

It was the very opposite of outcomes. On Wednesday, it took the referees ignoring what the NBA later ruled a foul, when Kobe Bryant swiped at Ricky Rubio’s potentially game-tying shot at the buzzer, for the Lakers to win. On Friday, Minnesota handily defeated the Thunder in a game whose result seemed close to inevitable by the beginning of the fourth quarter. Finally, on Sunday, the two teams hung together until the Grizzlies pulled ahead halfway through the third quarter, and even a win that was ultimately double-digits was still made compelling by Memphis’ air-tight defense.

Categorizing teams in the NBA, or even attempting to devise a power ranking, is close to impossible, and one weekend of games hardly goes very far in devising a hierarchy. But in Minneapolis, the three outcomes did more than just speak for themselves. They highlighted flaws (the Lakers’ and Thunder’s) and suggested that the Grizzlies might be nearly as great of a force as Oklahoma City in the playoffs thanks to their unforgiving defense. These games were a reminder of how fluid this all can be, of how the better team can lose and the upstart might be a bigger threat.

The Thunder, why they are the top tier … Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook. It’s a damn good core, and when the two of them are on, this team is close to unstoppable. Now, four years into their winning ways, they know how it’s done, and they’ve been on the highest stage.

… and why there might be reason to worry. Derek Fisher played 13 minutes Friday and 22 on Saturday, and that’s just one quibble I have with some of Scott Brooks’ lineups. Save for Kevin Martin, the bench is not particularly strong, and the Thunder have had too many of these weird losses this season. Utah? Cleveland? Minnesota twice? And that doesn’t even begin to address their 3-7 record against Denver, Memphis and San Antonio, one or more of whom they’ll likely have to face come May.

The Grizzlies, why they might be doing more than aspiring toward a solid run this spring … Marc Gasol returned from an abdominal tear that was supposed to keep him out for weeks after just two missed games this week, and since then he’s averaged 18.3 points on 64.5 percent shooting. The Grizzlies’ defense is also close to impenetrable, and to top it all off, this seems like the consummate team. When asked before Saturday’s game about how underrated point guard Mike Conley is, coach Lionel Hollins used the question as his platform for a long speech about the value of playing as a team:

“Fame and everything that everybody’s shooting for distracts from trying to be a team player,” Hollins said. “You get a lot of . . . people that think they have status and should be awarded certain things that everybody else doesn’t get, but it’s all about your team.”

… and why they might not be there yet. Frankly, if I’m Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver or the Clippers, I’m worried about facing these guys and being upset. The old adage that defense wins championships holds, but I can’t see the Grizzlies getting there unless their offense keeps clicking like it’s been in recent games, and a few lacking performances at that end of the court might be the end of them.

The Lakers, why they’re probably pretenders … Have you watched them this year? They’re up and down, devoid of chemistry, with a coach who’s something of a loose cannon. This team does not exactly inspire confidence, and with these injuries that keep popping up — no matter how minor — it’s been hard to get a clear picture of what the Lakers’ rotation actually is. We certainly know what it was supposed to be, and it’s never going to be that, now that Metta World Peace is likely done for the year.

… and why they might stand a fighting chance. Two words: Kobe Bryant. He’s playing through injury after injury with seemingly no consequences, and the man has confidence to spare. When asked on Wednesday about the maybe-foul on Rubio — this before the league ruled that it was indeed a foul — Bryant’s response about sums up his mindset: “We would’ve gone to overtime and won the game.”

Trending up

The Knicks, who have won eight straight after Sunday’s victory over Boston. This just a few weeks after injuries to Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler seemed like possible death blows to the team’s hopes to remain among the best in the East. The hottest topic was New York’s blazing start and that it had been a .500 team down the stretch ever since, but this late-March push should be enough to change that perception, even if the team isn’t quite designed for a long playoff run.

Trending down

The Lakers, who though they escaped with a win in Sacramento on Saturday seem decidedly more volatile than they did two weeks ago, when they were wrapping up a stretch in which they won six of seven games and seemed to be hinting at getting themselves on track at just the right time. Since March 17, Mike D’Antoni’s team has won just twice in six tries, and with Steve Nash injured and the Mavericks and Jazz both playing well, the outlook is growing a bit bleaker.

Best of the week

Team: The Mavericks, who are 11-5 over their last 16 games and are just a game and a half out of the eighth spot in the Western Conference standings. Since Jan. 10, in fact, Dallas is 23-14, and after leaving the Mavs for dead two months ago, it’s time to reconsider them as having a shot at the postseason, thanks in large part to Dirk Nowitzki playing like it’s 2009 again.

Player: Nowitzki, who went an astonishing 14-of-17 on Saturday in the Mavericks’ comeback win over the Bulls. He scored 35 points that afternoon, a season high, and after missing 29 games this season with a right knee injury, it certainly looks like Dirk is back. Since March 1, the German has averaged 20.0 points on 54.8 percent shooting and 7.6 rebounds per game.

Really short point guard: Nate Robinson, who not only scored 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting as his Bulls broke the Heat’s 27-game winning streak on Wednesday, but he also managed to get in some trash talk on Chris Bosh after the game. Robinson is the consummate pest, but you have to give it to him: as annoying as he is, he’s averaged 20.3 points over his last three games.

Worst of the week

Team: The Suns, who have lost six straight games by an average margin of 13.2 points and look pretty obviously to be tanking. Three of those six losses have come to sub-.500 teams in the Timberwolves, Wizards and Kings, and five of them occurred at home.

Player: Detroit’s Greg Monroe, who racked up a plus-minus of minus-44 in his first two games this week — against Toronto and Minnesota, no less. He shot just 33.3 percent and averaged just 11.0 points, down from his season marks of 47.8 percent and 15.7 points per game. His game Sunday was slightly better, with 18 points on 58.3 percent shooting, but that’s almost negated by the fact that his team went just 1-12 in March.

Remark: Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge saying that LeBron James should not complain about officiating. Pot, meet kettle. Complaining vociferously throughout one’s career does not make one an expert on complaint analysis.

Telling stats

24,901 points: Nowitzki passed Patrick Ewing to assume 17th place on the list of all-time leading scorers in the NBA on Wednesday. Ewing has 24,815 career points, and by the end of the week, Nowitzki had 24,901.

31,434 points: And because Dirk could only have the spotlight for a few days, Kobe Bryant also made a jump in the all-time scoring leaders standings this week. On Saturday, he eclipsed Wilt Chamberlain, moving into fourth place all-time with 31,434 points by the end of the Lakers’ win in Sacramento. (Of note: It took Bryant 1,233 games to get there, whereas it took Chamberlain just 1,045. In Nowitzki’s case, he reached Ewing’s mark in 84 games — about a full season — fewer than the former Knick.)

Three straight 30-point games off the bench: The Knicks’ J.R. Smith achieved the feat this week, scoring 32 on Tuesday in Boston, 35 Wednesday against Memphis and 37 Friday against Charlotte. He became the first player to do so since Milwaukee’s Ricky Pierce did it from March 24-27, 1990.

What we heard

“Danny Ainge needs to STFU and manage his own team. He was the biggest whiner going when he was a player. I know that because I coached against him.”

 — Miami Heat president Pat Riley on Friday, in response to Danny Ainge’s comments, outlined above. Them’s fightin’ words.

“He’s got to relax a little bit, too. Sometimes he gets his engine going so much, he gets too aggressive. But you love that, because it rubs off on the rest of the guys.”

 — Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman on his team’s point guard, Ricky Rubio, and his sometimes-extreme intensity. This just about two hours after Rubio kicked a chair in frustration just minutes into Friday’s eventual Timberwolves win, as seen in this animated GIF courtesy of @cjzero.

What’s ahead

Mavericks at Lakers, 10:30 p.m. ET Tuesday: This is Dallas’ chance to get even closer to leapfrogging the Lakers into the playoff picture, and with the way the Mavericks are playing and the inherent drama that is the Lakers, this should be an entertaining game, if perhaps not a great one. On the season, the Lakers have won two of three against the Mavs, although Dallas won at the Staples Center to open the season on Oct. 30.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.