(Photo Credit: 2O)
There have been almost 15 years of false dawns in Minnesota as the Timberwolves have been mired in the longest playoff drought in the NBA. But as we near the halfway point in the 2017/18 season the T-Wolves sit at 24-15, in comfortable possession of the Western Conference's fourth seed, and poised to end their exile in playoff wilderness.
But what has made this season different from the last 15? Here are three reasons why Minnesota have finally turned a corner.
The Thibodeau effect
When Tom Thibodeau took over as Minnesota’s head coach at the start of last season it seemed to be a perfect match. Thibodeau would take charge of the offensively talented Timberwolves, improve their defense, and lead Minnesota back to the promised land.
In his first season, this magical transformation failed to take place as the young Timberwolves remained inconsistent on defense and prone to blowing big leads. In the offseason, Thibodeau addressed these issues by adding some much-needed experience to Minnesota’s lineup.
Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, Jamal Crawford, and Jeff Teague have given the Timberwolves four players who know what it takes to win in the NBA to go with their burgeoning superstars. Thibodeau has long been known for his reliance on experienced players, and his faith in the seasoned campaigners is paying off with much more consistent play from his squad.
Jimmy Butler taking over
By far the most important addition Minnesota made in the offseason was that of Butler. For the first time since the departure of Kevin Garnett, the T-Wolves have a top ten NBA player in his prime on their books.
Having started slowly and seemingly more focused on improving Minnesota’s defense, Butler has exploded over the last month. Averaging 26.5 points per game in December, 'Jimmy Buckets' is the two-way player the Timberwolves have been craving.
His numbers are even more impressive in the clutch. At 4.4 points per game, he’s the second-highest scorer, behind LeBron James, in the final five minutes of games decided by five or fewer points (or overtime).
This was most notable in his 12-point effort in overtime against the Denver Nuggets where he helped the Timberwolves to a narrow 128-125 victory. If Butler can keep up these numbers, Minnesota are surely on their way to home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Stronger down the stretch
Thibodeau’s first season in charge of Minnesota was characterized by third-quarter collapses and blown leads. This season, the Timberwolves have been much stronger in crunch time, winning close games against the Thunder, Trail Blazers and Nuggets.
The recent loss to Milwaukee, where the Timberwolves blew a 20-point lead down the stretch, shows there is still room for improvement, but Minnesota are vastly improved in this area.
Jamal Crawford’s scoring off the bench has been a big part of this improvement, giving a much-needed offensive boost to a squad which is very reliant on its starting five. At 37 years young, the perennial Sixth Man of the Year contender is putting together another solid season, averaging ten points per game and propelling Minnesota towards the postseason.
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