There was a game a couple of years ago against the Spurs. It was at home. It was early in the lockout-shortened season on a Friday night. I remember watching it at a sports bar after work, with some friends. We were excited about Ricky Rubio. He was just a rookie and the most popular new player in the league. The Wolves began the season surprisingly competitive, playing almost-.500 ball that stood in stark contrast to the seasons of losing that we had grown accustomed to. But it was too early, and there were too many question marks to know if it was just a lucky start, or whether these winning ways had actual lasting power.
And a strange thing happened.
The Timberwolves won.
They beat the Spurs.
It wasn’t a fluke or anything. And that was the weird part. The Wolves just played well and — for one night — looked like a better team than the world-class San Antonio Spurs.
Fans of other teams — normal teams — wouldn’t understand. The Wolves don’t do that. Not when KG doesn’t play, anyway. Sure, they might beat a good team every now and then, but they never look like the better team. It never feels that legitimate.
It never feels that good.
I was thinking about that game yesterday afternoon, and how it probably marks the highest point of confidence I’ve had in the Timberwolves since Kevin Garnett was traded. Last season’s Thursday TNT win over the Thunder was great, but something about having Ricky Rubio hobbling off the bench made it seem a little bit less meaningful. When Rubio and Kevin Love led their new team to a win over Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, it felt like an arrival; the beginning of something incredible.
My thought was that a road win over the Warriors — a team that some smart people consider a title contender — might evoke feelings similar to the ones that followed that Spurs victory; a moment that feels like an eternity ago when you think about everything that’s happened since:
The roster turnover. The knee injuries. The knuckle push-ups. The Woj interview. The Adelman leave of absence. The Kahn firing. The Saunders hiring. This season’s perpetual trend of blowing out bad teams and narrowly losing to good ones.
And I must say that I was right.
Last night, the Timberwolves got a bunch of monkeys off their back. They finally won a close game. They finally beat a great team (and on that team’s home court, no less). Rubio finally made a shot in crunch time. They finally built a winning streak longer than two games; their first of this length since opening the season 3-0.
Like that win over the Spurs, last night’s felt so legitimate. They played to their strengths: The Bruise Brothers combined for 48 & 28 (and Love had 8 assists), Kevin Martin scored efficiently, and Rubio dished out 12 assists. They played to their weakness: Their interior defense was absolute garbage. And their opponent played extremely well: Curry had 33 points and was in his usual video game mode, and the Warriors shot 55.1 percent as a team. All of those reliable ingredients were thrown into a blender and out came a huge victory.
It’s easy to overstate the importance of one game. There are 82 of them after all. But even factoring in season length, point differentials, and regression-to-the-mean principles, last night’s victory seems so meaningful.
What too often gets ignored in modern NBA basketball analysis is the perspective of the actors themselves. Players and coaches don’t care about point differential. If anything, a close loss hurts more than a blowout. And a close win like last night’s forms essential bonds between teammates. Trust, chemistry, muscle memory, confidence and swagger. This isn’t about friendship. They can make friends while blowing out the Jazz. It’s about realizing what is possible in the moment so that one day they don’t have to look back on what could have been.
The timing of that realization can make all the difference in the world. For these Wolves — these Wolves that have Rubio in good health and Love and Pekovic dominating every game — it is not too late. They’re just 2.5 games out of the playoffs with 40 more to go.
Maybe last night’s win was just one win. I mean, if Harrison Barnes makes that shot at the buzzer, it’s just another close loss and a “here we go again” media response.
But if something clicked, whether it be embracing their transition game in clutch situations or Kevin Martin finding his shot or tightening up defensive rotations, if something clicked then the Wolves won’t have to worry about Dallas or Phoenix. Because they’re better than Dallas and Phoenix. They have better players and a more-than-capable coach leading them.
And they will realize that they’re better than those teams. I have no doubt about that. But the most important question — the only question — is when.
Season Record: 21-21