MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The Minnesota Timberwolves led by nine-point with under five minutes to play when the Orlando Magic made their charge.
Over the next three minutes, that lead disappeared, just as so many others had earlier in the season. They still trailed with 10 seconds to play when Andrew Wiggins took the ball, dribbled once to his left to create a sliver of daylight between himself and Aaron Gordon and drilled a 21-footer to tie the game.
It was Wiggins’ second clutch shot in the last week, one that helped the Timberwolves eventually defeat the Magic in overtime for their eighth victory in the last 11 games. And it marked the continuing evolution of a young team that is trying to put a miserable start to the year behind it and get back into the Western Conference playoff picture.
After starting the season a disappointing 6-18 under first-year coach Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves have started to show signs of turning a corner in the new year. They have the third-best record in the league over the last 11 games and sit just three games out of the eighth seed in the West heading into a game at Cleveland on Wednesday night.
“The thing that we’ve wanted since the beginning was to get in a rhythm and we’re starting to find one,” Karl-Anthony Towns said. “Now it’s just about staying disciplined, staying with the method that has been working and not deviating from the path.”
Straight from the coach’s mouth. Thibodeau has been demanding of his young charges through the first three months of the season, emphasizing consistency in approach and exactness in execution as the keys to long-term success. He still doesn’t hide his displeasure on the sideline with a missed rotation or a rushed jumpshot – the local cable network that broadcasts Timberwolves games has turned down some of the microphones near Thibodeau on the sideline so his growling isn’t quite as audible for audiences watching at home. But he has been quick to point out that he has been pleased with the work ethic he has seen from the team.
“We’re just trying to build the right habits,” Thibodeau said. “You don’t want to get too excited with a win. You don’t want to get too down after a loss. Just learn and improve because they keep coming. I like the direction that we’re moving in because of the way we’re practicing and preparing each day. But there’s a long way to go for us.”
Minnesota was still just 11-26 after giving up a nine-point lead in the final three minutes of a home loss to the Utah Jazz on Jan. 7, but the team points to a game in Chicago against Thibodeau’s former team as a bit of a milestone. The Wolves trailed by 21 points in the second quarter of that game, but rallied for a 99-94 victory that started the set the tone for the team going forward. Going into that game, the Wolves were 27th in the league in defensive rating, a startling statistic for a team coached by one of the best defensive minds in the game.
Since that game, however, the Wolves are seventh in the league in defensive rating (105.2 points per 100 possessions) and eighth in overall net rating (plus-1.9). The result has been a 13-11 record over that span, which is much more in line with what the expectations were at the start of the season for a team that has not made the playoffs since 2004.
Over the last two weeks, Towns is second and Wiggins is third in “clutch” field goal percentage – situations where the score is within five points in the final five minutes of the game – according to NBA.com. Only Kevin Durant has been better.
The schedule gets more challenging with games at Cleveland on Wednesday and at Detroit on Friday before a six-game home stand begins on Saturday against Memphis.
“If you’re doing the right things, the results will come,” Thibodeau said. “When they can see that, that helps. The challenge for us is how do we speed up the process? And it’s by how we work. We always say the magic is in the work.