For diehard basketball fans in Minnesota — a larger-than-you-think-and-depressed-as-you-would-expect lot — Wednesday night provided hardwood catharsis. The Timberwolves returned to the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons with a relentlessly entertaining overtime victory over Denver.
Our ability to be enthralled by a local team earning the eighth seed in a 15-team conference was also a tell. We have low standards.
The eighth seed earns the Wolves nothing more than a matchup with the best team in basketball, the Houston Rockets. A four-game sweep, especially if all four games are noncompetitive, would offer precisely the kind of reality that Wednesday's thriller momentarily obscured, a reminder of how far the Wolves are from championship contention.
Can the Wolves make a series of it? Maybe, if they …
1. D the three
They must play perimeter defense the way they did, at times, against Denver.
The Wolves' three-point defense wasn't impressive. The Nuggets made 40.6 percent of their three-point attempts. But there were moments when Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Jimmy Butler attacked the Nuggets on the perimeter, leading to steals and fast-break points. They will need to make a lot of those plays to compete with Houston.
2. Recognize uniqueness
The Rockets not only shoot far more three-pointers than any other NBA team, but they also are willing to shoot from well beyond the arc. What we saw in previous games between these teams: Often the Wolves thought they were defending the three-point line … and they weren't anywhere near James Harden or Ryan Anderson when they swished a 28-footer. The Wolves need to extend their defense.
3. Make KAT calls
Karl-Anthony Towns is the only Wolves player who could conceivably dominate in this series. He should touch the ball on virtually every possession, and especially late if the game is close.
4. Invigorate Wiggins
Often we see either Good Andrew Wiggins or Bad Andrew Wiggins. Wednesday, we saw both. He looked passive at times. He also produced key rebounds, three-point shots and clutch free throws. If getting Wiggins involved in the offense early will keep him engaged, get him involved in the offense early.
5. Ride Teague
One of the reasons Tom Thibodeau valued Jeff Teague over Ricky Rubio was Teague's playoff experience, toughness and ability to create his own shot. Despite Rubio's surge this year, Teague can justify that view by breaking down the Rockets defense.
6. See Thibs operate
Houston coach Mike D'Antoni's regular-season winning percentage is .550. His playoff winning percentage is .457. He's trying to prove this spring that his style will work in the playoffs. If Thibodeau wants to earn his bones as a defensive coach, he will do something to surprise D'Antoni.
7. Belly up to the rim
Nemanja Bjelica can shoot the three and run the floor, or he can disappear. The Wolves need him to perform like the MVP he was in Europe, not the afterthought he too often has been in Minnesota.
8. Play … hard?
The NBA has always been haunted by the perception that its players don't always give maximum effort.
In reality, NBA players generally do play hard, and good NBA teams do play defense, but the skill level in the league is so ridiculously high that giving a quality offensive player a split second or a couple of inches of room can be deadly.
To compete in this series, the Wolves have to fully appreciate that giving extra effort — closing out three-point shooters, playing help defense, scrambling for loose balls — is required.
9. Read the injury report
Anderson might not play on Sunday. Luc Mbah a Moute might not play in the series. The Wolves have weaknesses they can exploit.
10. Get lucky
Luck is a factor in any competitive series. The Wolves need to keep the games close enough that they can benefit from the right wrong call, the lucky bounce.
Let's say this for the Timberwolves: They're due.
Jim Souhan's podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib E-mail: email@example.com