MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — After two miserable seasons and four bad ones before that, the Minnesota Timberwolves had nowhere to go except up.
They’re showing a lot more than marginal improvement.
The Timberwolves entered the All-Star break of this lockout-shortened season with a buzzer-beating win over division rival and Western Conference playoff competitor Utah to bring their record back to even at 17-17.
Wait. Playoffs? Yes, that’s a reality for these remodeled, rejuvenated Wolves, who pulled within just one game of eighth place in the conference standings in this condensed 66-game schedule the NBA is using.
Seventeen wins is the same amount the Wolves finished with last year with, in 82 games. They’ve only played 34 times under new coach Rick Adelman with rookie point guard Ricky Rubio and emerging center Nikola Pekovic, and their confidence has continued to grow.
Before Wednesday’s comeback victory over the Jazz, Adelman was asked if he thought at the beginning of the season Wolves could be where they are now in the standings.
“To be honest,” Adelman said, “probably not.”
He praised the performance of All-Star Kevin Love, who has added a dangerous 3-point shot to his rebounding prowess, inside scoring touch and exceptional passing ability. He pointed to Rubio’s so-far successful takeover of the point guard position that has been such a problem for so many years in Minnesota. He noted Pekovic’s sudden establishment of himself as an intimidating, productive big man to complement Love around the basket and stabilize another spot in the lineup that has long been devoid of reliable let alone dominant players.
Love described the situation recently as “landscape” change for a franchise with a moribund sandwich around the Kevin Garnett-led playoff years. Even then, when the Wolves went to the postseason eight straight times, they won only two playoff series — both in the same year.
“It is crazy to think about,” Love said. “It’s just a whole new feel for the team. Even in most of the games we’ve lost, it feels like we’ve had the upper hand and given ourselves a chance. I think that’s the biggest thing for us as far as the learning curve, just giving ourselves a chance to win at the end of games and then figuring out how to win.”
That was clear again Wednesday against Utah when, despite an off night for Love and Rubio, the Wolves rallied from a deficit that was consistently in the double digits and was still at 16 with a little more than 9½ minutes left. Luke Ridnour’s runner in the lane won it in the last second.
That was the largest comeback win for Minnesota that late in a game, according to the team, in 15 years. The Wolves have five victories after double-digit-deficit rallies this season. The last time they were at the .500 mark or better at the All-Star break came in 2005, when they were 27-27.
“We’ll see if we can keep this thing going,” Adelman said.
The Wolves have four games in five days on the road next week, the first of several stiff tests that will come in the second half. They play both Los Angeles teams on back-to-back nights to start. Then there’s a seven-game trip later in March.
“We’re going to have to be playing well, and we’re going to have to have a lot of guys stepping up if we’re going to maintain what we’re doing,” Adelman said.
That starts at shooting guard, where the Wolves could use more a lot more production from Wes Johnson and Martell Webster. Rookie forward Derrick Williams is another obvious candidate for an upgrade in scoring, confidence in playing time down the stretch.
Williams, for his part, isn’t scared of the spotlight. He grinned Wednesday before the Jazz game as he talked about his participation in the annual slam dunk contest this weekend, trying to keep his creative plans a secret. Rubio will be in Orlando for the festivities, too, to play in the rising stars game. Love will participate in the 3-point contest and of course the All-Star game itself.
Finding time to rest during a busy weekend will be even more important for those guys so they’re ready for the second-half grind. But this is another one of those good problems to have, for a team that has had so much go wrong over the last several years.
“I think we should step up after this break, because we’re going to feel a lot better,” Pekovic said.
They already do.
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)