Jan. 18—A play-in tournament appearance seemed like a reasonable goal for the Timberwolves at the season's outset.
The Western Conference is often deep and talented, with eight-plus good teams in any given season. But finishing among the top 10 given the team's talent level was a fair expectation. If the Wolves could make the jump to win approximately half their games, that would equal a successful season they could build off of moving forward.
But as seasons progress, so too do circumstances. The Timberwolves are about where many pegged them to be at this point, just a breath below .500 and competitive on a nightly basis. But so much of the Western Conference has folded around them.
Minnesota's 21-22 mark would've placed it 12th in the Eastern Conference as of Monday afternoon, yet it stood in seventh place in the West. Suddenly, a top-six seed that would allow the Wolves to bypass the play-in tournament and move directly into the playoffs looks not only feasible, but likely?
Currently in sixth is a Denver team that's missing two of its top three players. The Nuggets still have reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, but Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are likely out until at least April.
Minnesota entered Monday tied with a Lakers team that could be without Anthony Davis for two more weeks.
The Clippers have fallen to ninth in the conference without Paul George, whose elbow injury situation appears rather ominous with a still to-be-determined return date. That's not to mention Kawhi Leonard, who still has yet to play this season after having surgery in July to repair his torn ACL.
The middle of the Western Conference pack is bruised and battered, with the exception of Minnesota. The Timberwolves, to this point, have avoided major injuries. Sure, Patrick Beverley and D'Angelo Russell missed a few games here and there with bumps, bruises and soreness, and Minnesota, like many teams, endured its own COVID crisis.
But sans reserve guard Jordan McLaughlin, who is currently in health and safety protocols, the Timberwolves are otherwise at full strength, with all traditional rotation players available. All hands are on deck. After the healthy Wolves routed short-handed Golden State on Sunday, Timberwolves coach Chris Finch noted now is the time for Minnesota to make a charge.
"This is the time for us to start putting it together and start stacking some really good performances on top of each other and avoid the slip ups that we've had," Finch said. "Through the last couple weeks, we've talked about getting everyone back healthy and what that could look like, and now it's time to go, make a push between here and the all-star break. It's always a tough time in the season, but we've got a lot more games piling up, most of them on the road, so we have to be ready to go."
The runway has cleared for Minnesota to make an expedited push up the Western Conference ladder, now it's up to the Wolves to prove they're serious about doing so. The next two road games in consecutive days against middling Eastern Conference opponents in New York and Atlanta provide the perfect opportunity for the Wolves to establish themselves as playoff-worthy.
"We don't just want be in the play-in game, we want to be set in the playoffs," Malik Beasley said. "We're trying to figure out how to get a nice little win streak to get us above the hump and take us to where we need to go."
Jaylen Nowell was asked about Minnesota's potential after Sunday's win. He wasn't sure how to answer the question. For years, potential has been the word used to describe this roster — which, yes, does still feature a number of "young" players.
Potential is usually a word used to discuss those who have yet to achieve.
Now is the time to ditch the inconsistencies that have plagued Minnesota all season and left it swimming just under the .500 mark for much of the season. There are no excuses present at the moment to do anything other than win.
"Potential — I've always heard that the longer you do something, you actually want to hear that word less, and you actually want to start doing," Nowell said. "I mean, we're gonna get to that point where we're doing this consistently. Once that happens, it's gonna be great."