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Wolves at the All-Star break: No. 1 in the West

PORTLAND, ORE. – Early in his career, Timberwolves forward Kyle Anderson was a part of a few Spurs teams that contended for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

There was a phrase Anderson said coach Gregg Popovich always preached: The team had to have the "appropriate fear" of its opponent on a nightly basis.

"It pertains to what's going on tonight," Anderson said the morning of the Wolves' win Thursday over Portland. "Just having the proper respect for this team. They're still a team full of really good players despite their record. They can come out and play hard and beat us. So we just got to have that in the back of our minds."

Thursday's game had the added component of being the final game before the All-Star break, and perhaps players might have heard the plane engines revving in the background to take them to their desired getaway. But before that, the Wolves took care of business in blowing out the Trail Blazers 128-91.

At the break, the Wolves are 39-16 and in first place in the Western Conference by 1½ games over Oklahoma City with only 27 games remaining in the regular season. They have the most road wins in the league (20) and entered the break on a four-game win streak as they tried to put behind a choppy final few weeks that saw them take preventable losses to sub-.500 teams in Charlotte, San Antonio and Chicago.

During the final eight weeks of the season, the Wolves will be trying to secure the second No. 1 seed in franchise history, joining the 2003-04 team. Their primary rivals for that spot seem to be Oklahoma City, the Los Angeles Clippers (two behind) and defending NBA champion Denver (three behind).

Of course, a championship is the ultimate goal, but their success — and lack of it in the playoffs — begs that question of how vital the Wolves view earning the No. 1 seed in helping them achieve the goal of winning a title.

"It matters if you're trying to project everything forward," coach Chris Finch said. "You want every advantage possible. If you have the best record, then of course you get home court, but it's too far out to really bank on anything."

Finch likes to break the season up into chunks that the Wolves can use as short-term goalposts, and he tries not to let them look too far ahead. So in that sense, the race for the top seed is not something that is top of mind for the team on a nightly basis.

The Wolves have two starters who have been top seeds — Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley, who were on the Jazz when they locked down the top spot in 2021. Gobert said the team can't obsess too much over where it is in the standings on a nightly basis.

"I would say the standings matter, but you don't want to be looking at the standings too much," Gobert said. "You want to focus on the daily work. Focus on today's workout, today's practice. Focus on your recovery and then when it's game time, just focus on winning and then when it's all said and done, hopefully we want to get home-court advantage for the whole playoffs, or at least for the Western Conference playoffs."

Nobody took last season's inconsistencies harder than Gobert, who is never afraid to voice where he thinks the team could be better. Following Thursday's win — and before he headed to a beach to soak up some sun — a happy Gobert sounded as content in his time in Minnesota as he ever has.

"I can feel that we have a purpose," the three-time NBA defensive player of the year said. "Personally, I came here to help this team win a championship. But last year, it was kind of like a lot of adversity. We realized early on that it probably was not going to be that year, but we could feel that we had the potential. And this year, from Day One of training camp, it was a different focus, different mindset. We learned from everything that happened last year, and it made us grow."

To Conley, the key for the Wolves finishing strong is not trying to do too much. Just play within themselves, don't try to do anything extra. Remember what has brought them this far.

"It's just about being consistent at this point," Conley said. "Not making up our own game plans, just doing what got us here so far. We play the right way, we play as hard as we're capable of playing, we're one of the best teams in the world then."

Getting the No. 1 seed used to go hand in hand with being one of the best teams in the world. But the NBA is a flatter league than it has been in a long time. Seeding doesn't matter as much once the playoffs begin. Just look at the East last season, where No. 8 seed Miami made it to the finals.

For a franchise that hasn't made it out of the first round since 2004, however, a No. 1 seed, every home game, every edge can matter. But even if the Wolves don't get the top seed after 27 more games, they know their ultimate goal is still in reach.

"We know why we're here," Gobert said. "We're not here to just be first in the West, we're not here to just have a good year, we're here to try and win a championship, and everyone is aware of it, and everyone believes in it."