Wolves look for strong finish into All-Star break

Every game is important, but the Minnesota Timberwolves are embarking on what might be their most pivotal stretch of the season starting Tuesday night at Memphis.

The Timberwolves went down to the last possession Saturday night in a 107-106 loss to the Denver Nuggets at Target Center. Jerryd Bayless had the ball and wanted to get it to Karl-Anthony Towns, but the play broke down. His secondary option was Luol Deng for a game-winning shot from the corner, but it never had a chance.

It was a game that was there for the taking, and the Timberwolves couldn’t grab it. The loss dropped Minnesota to 25-27 on the season after 52 games. There are five games to play before the NBA All-Star break, and the Timberwolves are currently three games back of the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference playoffs.

Four games out of seventh, five games out of sixth and six games out of the No. 5 spot. Win a few games, and anything can happen. But the Timberwolves have to find a way to win more of the games that come down to the final possession.

“Really close, 1 or 2 possession games. It all comes down to just a couple mishaps. We’re playing hard, we’re right there, we’re down a lot of guys,” said forward Taj Gibson, who had eight points and five rebounds in Saturday’s loss. “We’re just trying to pull together.”

It really is as close as Gibson says. The Timberwolves have played 12 games with Ryan Saunders leading from the bench. They’re 6-6 in that stretch, and eight of the 12 games have been decided by four points or fewer. The Timberwolves are 4-4 in those games.

Minnesota also has wins of 15 and 27 points with Saunders, and losses of 14 to the Utah Jazz and 42 points to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Timberwolves travel to Memphis Tuesday and has back-to-back road games at Orlando Thursday and New Orleans Friday.

That’s three games in four days, but none of the next three opponents is currently a playoff team. The Timberwolves then come home to face the Clippers Feb. 11 and the Rockets Feb. 13 before nine days off. They haven’t won more than four straight games all season, but they’re hoping to change that in this upcoming stretch and put themselves in playoff contention in the process.

“I think for us this is the most important part of the year. This five games we have, we’ve got the trip for three games, and we can win all three games. It’s very important to us,” forward Dario Saric said. “Try to get five wins before the All-Star break, and I think this team is capable of doing that.”

The Timberwolves also need to get healthy. Derrick Rose played Saturday night after missing three games with an ankle injury. He won’t play Tuesday at Memphis. Jeff Teague did light shooting on Tuesday, but has missed the last six games with a left foot issue. He’s missed 21 games this year with injuries and is doubtful for Tuesday.

Robert Covington has missed the last 15 games with a bone bruise in his knee. Tyus Jones has missed the last eight games with an ankle injury.

They’re banged up, and the NBA trade deadline is 2 p.m. Thursday. There’s always a chance somebody could be dealt by then, for the right price.

More than anything, Saunders wants his players locked in for the final five games before the All-Star break. The time is comparable to the last few weeks of school before students get let out for the summer. The reality for the Timberwolves is they need every win they can get up to Feb. 13 to give themselves a chance at the playoffs.

The Timberwolves will have 25 games after the break, which isn’t a lot of time to play catch-up.

“It’s really important. We say look at the next game, but you do want to position yourself before the All-Star break to be in solid standing as you’re looking towards the playoffs,” Saunders said. “The All-Star break, it’s a challenge for some players on some teams as you want to make sure to stay focused, guys aren’t looking towards their plans.”

They’re 17-10 at Target Center this season, and have 14 home games left.

The Timberwolves are fighting for their playoff chances, players are playing for jobs and Saunders might be coaching for his future in Minnesota. The Timberwolves believe they can make a run and getting healthy will help, but it starts with having a sense of urgency in games.

One bad possession, one loss and the hill becomes too big to climb.

“We need these games. Close it out strong,” Andrew Wiggins said. “We’re not in position right now so we need to fight to get back in position, give ourselves a chance to get back in that playoff run.”