Timberwolves post-break playoff hunt primer

BY Tom Dierberger • February 22, 2018

It’s been 14 years since the Minnesota Timberwolves last appeared in the NBA playoffs.

That’s right, it was the year 2004, when “The Notebook” wasn’t a date cliché but rather a new movie hitting local theaters. Some college kid named Mark Zuckerberg just launched a website called Facebook. The last episode of “Friends” aired in May. And the top song in the country was “Yeah!” by Usher.

Come to think of it, 2004 wasn’t too bad of a year.

Flash forward to 2018, and Timberwolves fans are in unfamiliar territory. Instead of engaging in mind-numbing conversations about lottery balls, the Timberwolves are in the mix at the All-Star break with a 36-25 record. It’s their best mark in February since, you guessed it, 2004.

But with 21 games remaining on Minnesota’s regular-season schedule, nothing is a guarantee. Although the fourth seed seems like a comfortable position to be in at the break, only 3 1/2 games separate the Timberwolves from the conference’s third seed and another empty season at Target Center with no playoff appearance.

Ten of the Wolves’ remaining 21 games will be against current playoff teams, and that’s not even including two contests against Ricky Rubio’s red-hot Utah Jazz that have seemingly forgotten how to lose, as they took an 11-game win streak into the break.

Minnesota’s schedule gets brutal in early March. The Timberwolves host the Boston Celtics and defending champion Golden State Warriors before hitting the road to visit Washington and San Antonio. Four games in a row against top-four seeds of the East and West.

Take a deep breath though, Timberwolves fans. Minnesota does own a respectable 17-15 record against those current playoff teams, and there’s only a 2 percent chance it misses the postseason according to playoffstatus.com. That formula claims the Timberwolves as 38 percent favorites to walk away with the No. 3 seed and ranks their strength of schedule the rest of the season as the conference’s ninth-toughest.

Rockets 44-13 .772 10 5 52%
Warriors 44-14 .759 9.5 15 47%
Spurs 35-24 .593 -- 1 55%
Timberwolves 36-25 .590 -- 9 51%
Thunder 33-26 .559 +2 7 52%
Nuggets 32-26 .552 +2.5 8 51%
Trail Blazers 32-26 .552 +2.5 6 52%
Pelicans 31-26 .544 +3 4 52%
Clippers 30-26 .536 +3.5 2 54%
Jazz 30-28 .517 +4.5 12 49%

Topping that chart is San Antonio — the team Minnesota is chasing for the No. 3 seed. Of the Spurs’ remaining 23 games, 16 of them are against current playoff teams, including two each against Golden State and Houston and a prime-time matchup with the new-look Cavs on Sunday. Gregg Popovich’s bunch has been without two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard for most of the year, of course, and likely will be for the remainder of the regular season.

Oklahoma City, which trails the Wolves by two games, has a slightly more difficult schedule (ranked seventh) than the Timberwolves. Thirteen of the Thunder’s final 23 contests are against current playoff teams, including six of their last seven games to close out the year: at Boston, vs. Miami, vs. Portland, at San Antonio, vs. Denver, at New Orleans, vs. Golden State, at Houston, at Miami, vs. Memphis. Woof!

Elsewhere in the West, the Trail Blazers are known as a second-half team, having stormed back in the playoff race last year with an 18-8 finish after the break. They sit in the No. 7 slot. New Orleans clings to the West’s final playoff position despite losing four-time All-Star DeMarcus Cousins for the season.

So the road is rough for Minnesota, but it could be worse.

Are Timberwolves fans ready to taste the postseason again? Well, as Lil Jon said way back in 2004: yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah … YEAH!

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