Jace Frederick: The Timberwolves’ race for the No. 1 seed is officially on, and it matters

Target Center was rocking Sunday evening as Minnesota emerged victorious from another monumental clash of the titans.

The Timberwolves thoroughly outplayed the red-hot Clippers for large pockets of the game and did enough to fend off Los Angeles’ furious late-game rally to pull off a win and reclaim sole possession of the top spot in the Western Conference.

Everything about Sunday’s affair – from the quality of the competition to the raucous atmosphere – screamed “playoffs,” and was a precursor of what’s to come three months from now.

It also was a reminder of just how important home-court advantage is, particularly in today’s NBA.

Minnesota flew around and was tenacious defensively, stifling the Clippers’ isolation-heavy offense with its slew of strong perimeter defenders and a lurking Rudy Gobert. That’s been the hallmark of this Timberwolves team – specifically at Target Center.

In Minneapolis, the Wolves are allowing just 103 points per 100 possessions – the best home defensive rating by 3.9 points.

As a whole, Minnesota is 16-2 at home – the second-best mark in the NBA – while outsourcing opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions at Target Center. That’s tied with Philadelphia for the fourth-best home NBA rating this season.

The numbers all match the eye test. Frankly, Minnesota looks unbeatable at home given the fury with which it competes as it feasts off the energy of its rabid fan base.

The Timberwolves’ best brand of basketball is one that features – and, frankly, requires – so much gusto that is difficult to produce on the road.

It’s why Minnesota’s net rating dips to 1.2 away from home, and its defensive rating plummets to a 113.

That’s not to even say any of those numbers are egregious. They’re still in the top third-ish in terms of NBA road numbers. The best teams tend to dominate at home, while treading water on the road. That’s a profitable season-long formula.

It could also lead to postseason success. But the math works out much better if you play more home games in a series than you do on the road. Given Minnesota’s salary cap situation, this is the year for the Wolves to potentially make its best title push. This is the time to think title.

And while Minnesota currently holds the top spot in the Western Conference, the top tier of the conference is fairly tightly bunched. The Wolves, Thunder, defending champion Nuggets, Clippers and even Pelicans all have strong cases to be title contenders.

The first three teams listed are all exquisite in their home barns.

You think Minnesota’s 10.2 net rating at home is impressive? Oklahoma City’s is 11.2, and Denver’s is 10.4.

The Timberwolves’ top competitors are equally as excellent on their home floors. It’s not inconceivable to think that the Western Conference finals would feature Minnesota and Denver. Dating back to last season – including the playoffs, Minnesota is 4-1 at Target Center against the Nuggets, and 0-5 in Denver.

Already this season, the Timberwolves stifled the Thunder at Target Center, and were blitzed in Oklahoma City.

Home-court adventure in any series could be paramount.

It’s why as much as Timberwolves’ basketball boss Tim Connelly touches on the value of a top-four seed and home-court advantage in Round 1 of the playoffs, the No. 1 seed – and home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs, is easily Minnesota’s most likely path to the NBA Finals. That’s what makes the final half of the season all the more important.

Specifically, for Minnesota, this upcoming stretch. The Wolves entered Monday leading Oklahoma City by a half-game in the standings, and Denver by one.

Of the Timberwolves’ next 20 games, 13 are against teams currently below .500. If the Wolves continue to beat up on lowly foes – as they have all season – they’ll now only experience success now, but potentially well into the future.

As in April and May, and potentially even June.