Timberwolves’ playoff hopes are alive, thanks to Towns and Rubio

Despite a tough road loss on the second half of a back-to-back in Milwaukee on Saturday night, the Timberwolves are within striking distance of the eight and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Remember when the Minnesota Timberwolves were projected to make the playoffs before they played a single game this season?

An abundance of young promising talent that looked like they were ready to put it all together under new head coach Tom Thibodeau. But then, they fell flat on their face, and looked dead in the water by December. They entered the all-star break four-and-a-half games behind Denver for the eighth seed, and a playoff appearance didn’t seem likely.

I guess the all-star break was all the Wolves needed, because they’re 5-3 post-all-star break with wins against the Jazz, Clippers and Warriors. And they didn’t just beat the Jazz and Clippers, they blew them out, beating the Jazz by 27 and the Clippers by 16. Plus, the 16-point victory snapped an 18-game home losing streak against the Clippers. Overall, the Wolves have only managed to trim their deficit by a game, but the way they’re playing is a good sign.

The biggest question is, how have they done it? Well, they’ve done it on the backs on Ricky Rubio and Karl-Anthony Towns, of course.

Since the all-star break, Rubio has averaged a double-double with 14 points and 11 assists per game, adding five rebounds per contest as well. Rubio was the center of trade talks during the deadline, but the Wolves decided to keep him and it sure seems that it was the right choice. He’s recorded at least a double-double in six of the eight games they’ve played post-break, including a triple-double in an overtime loss against the Spurs.

Towns, for his part, has been a man on a mission. This is a textbook small-sample-size narrative, but Towns has been averaging close to 28 points and 15 rebounds while shooting an absurd 63 percent from the floor post-All-Star. He recorded his sixth game of 35 points and 10 rebounds on Saturday against the Milwaukee Bucks.

According to StatMuse, he’s just the fourth second-year player with six games of 35 points and 10 rebounds since 1984-85.

He is proving himself to be a match-up-proof center in the league, and that’s just no fun for whoever he’s facing on any given night. The Wolves’ next three games are against the Wizards, Celtics and Heat; Washington and Boston are in the bottom-third of the league in rebounding, so look for Towns to continue his domination of the boards.

The rest of the Timberwolves’ schedule has it’s share of winnable games, and they need to take full advantage of it. They won’t play the Nuggets or Mavericks again, however, so every game is extremely important.

With 17 games left, the Wolves can go from a preseason playoff prediction, to dead in the water, to all the way back to an actual playoff appearance. In order to do that, however, Rubio, Towns, and Andrew Wiggins all have to play at a high level down the home stretch.