Wolves at the door: With Rubio dealing and KAT beasting, Minnesota's on a roll

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Ricky Rubio gave Karl-Anthony Towns and Wolves fans everywhere plenty to smile about on Monday. (Getty Images)
Ricky Rubio gave Karl-Anthony Towns and Wolves fans everywhere plenty to smile about on Monday. (Getty Images)

Back in the fall, the Minnesota Timberwolves just couldn’t seem to figure out how to finish opponents off, and it helped put them in a hole that made them a long-shot bet to earn the franchise’s first playoff berth in 13 years. But after those early-season stumbles, Tom Thibodeau’s young Wolves have come on strong of late and continued their charge toward a postseason berth on Monday, thanks to the inside-out tandem of big man Karl-Anthony Towns and playmaking genius Ricky Rubio.

Minnesota never trailed at Target Center on Monday night, riding Rubio’s brilliant table-setting to a 41-point first quarter that left the visiting Washington Wizards dumbstruck and playing from behind all night long. And when John Wall, Bradley Beal and company finally put together enough of a run to get back within hailing distance midway through the fourth quarter, it was reigning Rookie of the Year Towns who was there to shut the door, scoring 13 points in the final 4 1/2 minutes to ice an impressive 119-104 win.

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If you were so inclined, you could chalk Monday’s outcome up to the Wiz entering the Twin Cities at the end of a five-games-in-seven-nights Western Conference road swing. Games like that seem destined to become schedule losses, especially when you head into them coming off consecutive overtime affairs, and when you’re already assured of a winning road trip after having won the first four games.

But doing that would give short shrift to a Wolves team that jumped all over Washington in the first six minutes and wouldn’t let up. Rubio was locked in from the opening tip and throwing darts all over the floor, dishing 10 dimes in the first quarter alone en route to setting a new Minnesota franchise record with 19 helpers (to go with 22 points on 8-for-15 shooting, five rebounds and three steals) in 39 minutes of work:

Ten Rubio passes became assists courtesy of Towns, who continued his sensational sophomore season — and his particularly stellar recent run of form — with a game-high 39 points on 17-for-26 shooting with 13 rebounds in 35 minutes in the win, beasting against Washington big men Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi all night long:

Reserve forward Nemanja Bjelica added 16 points on just seven shots with 10 rebounds, two assists and a steal off the bench for the Wolves, who have now won three of four and seven of 10 to improve to 28-38, and sit 3 1/2 games back of the Denver Nuggets for the West’s eighth and final playoff spot with 16 games left to play.

Minnesota’s recent surge has come as a surprise to some observers who all but wrote them off after losing high-flying and high-scoring shooting guard Zach LaVine for the season to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Since LaVine was ruled out for the season, though, the Wolves have circled the wagons and made a run, going 9-7 since Feb. 4 and outscoring opponents by 6.1 points per 100 possessions, the NBA’s fourth-best net rating during that span.

Thibodeau has leaned hard on the standard starting unit (Rubio, Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng) with veteran Brandon Rush in LaVine’s place, but that group has outscored opponents by 1.4 points-per-100 in 267 minutes since the injury — positive, but not a ton to write home about. Thibs has looked to augment that baseline by continuing to shuffle, tweak and search for combinations that will work, playing matchups and pressing advantages, and finding paydirt in some alignments (Bjelica as a floor-spacer and playmaker alongside Towns or Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad as a bully-ball complement to Wiggins on the wing) that have helped juice the Wolves’ offense.

With studs like Towns (now averaging 28.6 points and 13.2 rebounds on 60/42/81 shooting splits over his last 20 games), Rubio (lights-out since the scuttled trade-deadline deal that would have sent him to New York, averaging 14.9 points, 11.8 assists, 5.2 rebounds on 46/39/85 shooting since the All-Star break) and Wiggins (25.6 points on 46/37/81 shooting since LaVine went down) carrying the scoring and playmaking load, the Wolves have shown enough firepower to go toe-to-toe with some of the league’s toughest teams, even without LaVine’s long-range flamethrowing. The biggest turnaround, though, has been in their advancing ability to get stops.

On Dec. 31, 2016, the Wolves ranked 26th among 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency, conceding 108.2 points per 100 possessions. Since Jan. 1, 2017, they’re 10th, allowing 106.1-per-100. Since the All-Star break — admittedly just a nine-game sample, but still — they’re second, giving up just 99.9 points-per-100. Only the Kawhi Leonard-led, league-leading San Antonio Spurs have been stingier.

Opponents are shooting just 43.4 percent against the Wolves since the break, the lowest opposing field goal percentage in the NBA over that period, and down nearly 4 percent from before mid-February. The weird thing: Minnesota’s actually allowing about four more shots per game than before, including more high-value looks in the restricted area (28.3 per game before All-Star, 30.1 since) and from the short corners (5.9 before, 6.2 since). But teams just aren’t knocking down their triples against the Wolves right now.

After conceding long balls at a 41.4 percent clip from the corners and a 35.3 percent rate from above the break before the All-Star Game, Wolves’ opponents are down to just 35.7 percent from the corners and 30.2 percent above the break since. Pre-All-Star, teams shot about 1 percent better from deep against Minnesota than they did on average; post-All-Star, they’ve shot nearly 6 percent worse.

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That might just be a small-sample blip, the make-or-miss coin randomly landing on the friendly side a few more times in a row than you’d expect. To hear the Wolves tell it, though, their recent uptick in defensive efficiency and effectiveness — a “quantum leap” on that side of the ball, Thibodeau recently called it — has been a long time in coming.

“I feel like we want it more,” Wiggins said after a 107-80 win over the Utah Jazz earlier this month. “You know, we want to play defense more. We’ve been doing a lot in practice, shootaround, going through it. I think it’s just muscle memory now, and it’s starting to kick in.”

That — combined with Rubio’s facilitating flourishes, Wiggins playing some of the best ball of his career before seeming to wear down a bit the last couple of games, and Towns becoming increasingly unstoppable — has translated to wins over the Wizards, Warriors, Clippers and Jazz over the last two weeks, with an overtime loss to the Spurs added for good measure. This is as good as the Wolves have looked all year, the payoff for all that early-season frustration coming in the form of a surprising push to the fringes of playoff contention.

“When you look at the past couple years and where we are now, it says we’ve made a big jump,” Thibodeau said last week, according to Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “I think you have to get close to winning first, and then the winning happens. Right now, we’re starting to understand that.”

Whether that understanding and the on-court effort it breeds will wind up being enough to actually propel Minnesota past the Portland Trail Blazers and Nuggets into the West’s eighth seed remains to be seen. On Monday night, though, it accomplished a feat perhaps even more rare and remarkable — it got Thibs to bare his fangs in something other than anger.

The next time anyone tries to tell you that Ricky Rubio isn’t a magician, remember this: he even got Tom Thibodeau to change his face and be happy.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!