Well, the 2013-14 season is on the home stretch after this weekend’s All-Star Game in New Orleans. All teams have about 30 games left to play until the postseason opens up in mid-April, and in that span we’ll find out who will get a shot at a second season. Will the Wolves be part of it? They’ve got some work ahead of them as they currently sit 25-28 overall, six games back of the eighth spot in the competitive West. It’s not out of the question, but there is little margin for error at this point. Here are five things to watch for in Minnesota’s final 29 games that will dictate whether or not the Wolves will earn a postseason berth.
5. How will Pekovic, Martin and the rest hold up health-wise?
The Wolves had to deal with Chase Budinger and Ronny Turiaf’s longterm injuries earlier in the season, but aside from Budinger’s knee and Turiaf’s elbow the team was pretty healthy. That changed when Nikola Pekovic suffered a bursitis injury in his ankle in early February, and it continued before the break when Kevin Martin suffered a broken thumb in New Orleans on Feb. 7. As we come out of the break, we haven’t yet heard definite timetables on their returns but we know Pekovic will be out tonight against Indiana (tipoff at 7 PM on Fox Sports North, ESPN and 830 WCCO-AM) and Martin will be re-evaluated at the end of this week. Their presence when they return will immediately make an impact, but will they be ready to jump back in conditioning-wise right away? Both Pekovic and Martin will be crucial to this team’s playoff chances, so getting them back into game form as soon as possible is important to this team.
4. Can the Wolves rally off a winning streak?
As the Wolves headed into the All-Star Break, they lost six of eight and turned their single game over .500 into three games under in the span of two weeks. Minnesota needs to find a way to get on a couple five-game winning streaks here, which is not something this franchise has been able to do in some time. But putting together a stretch of wins here and there would not only build confidence and get momentum rolling, it would finally get the Wolves back to that .500 mark and create a little separation on the good side of the line. The Wolves’ best streak of the year was winning five of six between Jan. 18-29. It’s going to be crucial for Minnesota to get that type of streak rolling if they’re going to compete for that eighth spot.
3. How will Ricky Rubio’s shooting impact the team’s offensive sets?
Ricky Rubio continues to work hard on his shooting in practice and at shootaround, but the results haven’t become consistent in games just yet. You have to believe with Rubio’s work ethic and talent that will come, but for right now Rubio is shooting 36.1 percent from the field this season and is getting defensive looks asking him to shoot off the pick. In the five games prior to the All-Star Break, Rubio put together a much more aggressive offensive approach that ended up paying off. His shot started falling with more efficiency, and he registered four 10-plus point performances (including 25 against Portland on Feb. 8), which was his most consistent stretch of scoring since early December. Look, with the Wolves’ lineup consisting of Love, Pekovic and Martin when healthy, Rubio doesn’t need to be a primary scorer for this team. But he does need to keep defenses honest, and if he starts hitting his shots like he did in early February that will go a long way toward opening up some passing lanes for him to get other teammates involved.
2. Will Kevin Love carry the team with December-like performances?
Kevin Love put together a month in December that we’ve rarely seen in the NBA over the past 30 years. His 30.0 points, 13.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists were sensational during the month, and he tallied 25-plus points in 11 straight games—a new franchise record. During that month, Love also recorded 25-plus points and eight-plus rebounds in 11 straight games, the longest such streak since Shaq in 2001. And he tallied 30 consecutive games to start the season with either 30-plus points or 10-plus rebounds, which was the longest streak in the NBA to start a season since Bill Walton for the Blazers in 1976-77. We’ve seen Love get hot for an entire month before—his March 2012 showing was one of the best in team history. Can he put together another streak like that and help will this team back into the postseason race?
1. Who will step up on the defensive end?
Minnesota can score. You know it. I know it. We all know it. Especially when they’re healthy, this team can put up numbers. The problem is they give up a lot of numbers, too. The Wolves have struggled defensively throughout the year, and in the crucial final five minutes of games they’ve really struggled because opposing teams are clamping down on Minnesota’s offensive game plan while the Wolves can’t keep up defensively. Minnesota does have perimeter players who they feel can deter defensive schemes in both Corey Brewer and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Ricky Rubio is capable of slipping into passing lanes and causing turnovers. But interior defense is crucial, and the Wolves need to have players step up and be able to at the very least deter teams from attacking the rim. Who will step up?