Dating back to 2006, the months of March and April have not been interesting ones for Minnesota Timberwolves fans. In what was first inspired by a surprising and disappointing inability to reach the playoffs and a draft-pick debt to the Clippers that was protected if the Wolves picked high enough (finished with a bad enough record) the franchise introduced its fans to the concept of intentionally losing games. “Tanking” is the commonly accepted term in NBA circles. In 2006, Kevin Garnett sat out the season’s final 6 games. The Wolves lost 5 of them. The final game — when a win would have jeopardized the team’s ability to trade away Brandon Roy a couple months later — included the most embarrasing, shameless display of tanking in league history. Mark “Mad Dog” Madsen was deployed to chuck up shots that he had no chance of making. Mad Dog was 1 for 15 from the floor (and 0-7 from downtown) and the Wolves lost in double overtime. Welcome to the Twin Cities, Randy Foye.
The next year was more of the same. KG sat the last five games — all losses — and the Wolves were again able to make a Draft Night mistake. This time, it was selecting Corey Brewer instead of his Gator teammate Joakim Noah. The spring of 2008 was also bad, but that was for the simple reason that the team, at full strength, was terrible. Unlike the previous two tank jobs, the gutting of the roster in 2008 led to a draft night prize when Kevin Love and Mike Miller (a significant piece of the trade for Ricky Rubio) were acquired for O.J. Mayo. But once again in the spring of 2009, the Wolves were losing almost all of their games. This time it was bad luck and not motive causing L’s to pile up. Al Jefferson’s torn ACL derailed the first sign of promise since the Garnett trade. The team lost 18 of 24 games in March and April, managing a few gratuitous victories from fellow tankers along the slide into summer.
In 2010 and 2011 the Wolves were atrocious. The wish-I-could-erase-it-from-memory Kurt Rambis Era included a 15-win season and a 17-win season. Suffice it to say, March and April were no better than November through February. And last year, much like in 2009, spring at Target Center was spoiled by a bum knee — this time Ricky Rubio’s that suffered the same fate as Al Jeff before him. Ricky hurt his knee on March 9 when the loss to the Lakers dropped the team record to 21-20. From that point forward, without Rubio and sometimes without Pekovic and Love, the team won 5 out of 25 games.
It is with this background that we watched and enjoyed last night’s commanding win over the defending conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder. Beating an elite opponent in late March is new territory for these Wolves. Frankly, it felt kind of weird watching it. They remain without Kevin Love, but have the much-needed Chase Budinger back from his knee injury. Ricky Rubio is playing at a consistently-high level and Nikola Pekovic was the best big man on the floor. Pieces are finding their appropriate places. The win followed a narrow defeat to the Hall of Fame-stacked LA Lakers and a blowout win at Detroit. Up next are the title-contender Grizzlies (tonight), Celtics, and a road game at Milwaukee. Each of those games will be a tough test, but more importantly, a true opportunity for this group to see where it’s at with most of its players in action.
This has been, by and large, a lost season. The injuries were so never ending that even a genius tactician like Rick Adelman could not avoid a lottery-bound fate. But if the team closes the season playing good basketball, against good teams, it has something new and important to hang its hat on, and base off-season decisions on. Glen Taylor might be on the fence about spending for both Chase Budinger and Nikola Pekovic, this summer. Perhaps he could be swayed to do that by more wins over teams like the Thunder; teams like tonight’s opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies. Winning begets winning habits. I believe that, anyway. I also believe the opposite is true. While there is a tangible reward for “tanking” in the form of improved draft position that has not proved a fruitful strategy for this organization. It’s time for a different route; a game-by-game, “win as many as we can” route.
Here’s hoping last night’s win is the beginning of a new era of springtime basketball at Target Center.