By the time they host Boston at Target Center on Thursday, the Wolves will have had five days off.
In the NBA, five days between games — when an All-Star Game is not involved — is almost unheard of.
But it was needed.
The Wolves had lost two games on the road in Portland and Utah, the second offering the young players an idea of what playofflike intensity is all about, and what navigating the final 16 games without Jimmy Butler will entail. Then came two days to rest. Since then, two intense days of practice, with another coming Wednesday.
“I think the biggest thing for us is, one, rest,” Karl-Anthony Towns said. “Two, mental recharge. And then to be able to come back and really get right. Get in tune, tweak some things in our offense and defense to be ready for what is, for some of us — especially me and [Andrew Wiggins] — the biggest stretch of our career so far.”
It’s that big.
With 16 games left the Wolves are 38-28. Going into Wednesday's games, they are in a tie with San Antonio for fifth in the Western Conference. They are 1 1/2 games behind third-place Portland, but just 2 1/2 games from being out of the playoff picture. Minnesota caught a break late Tuesday night when New Orleans, which is fourth, held off a late rally to beat the ninth-place Clippers, which would have tightened the race even more.
And the upcoming schedule? Brutal.
The Wolves will get plenty of rest, playing their next eight games in 17 days. But those eight games include seven against teams in playoff position. That includes games against Boston (No. 2 in the East), Golden State (No. 2, West) and Houston (No. 1, West).
The Wolves also play Washington, San Antonio and Philadelphia in that stretch, and host the Clippers.
Veterans such as Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague have been through this before. But Towns and Wiggins — the team’s top two healthy talents — haven’t. So the coming days will be a test. And an education.
“You always begin the season with the end in mind,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “But, until you have the opportunity to go through [a playoff push]? You can talk about it, try to work the right way. Now they’re starting to see how important everything is.”
This, with every game carrying more weight.
Wiggins said he is following the league closer than ever, caught up in the excitement of the stretch run.
“I’m looking at other teams,” he said. “ ‘Are they winning, losing? What place are we in?’ Every day. It’s motivation.”
Gibson said the younger players have seen it already; the games in Portland and Utah both had a playoff atmosphere. And while the Wolves were competitive, they fell short in the fourth quarter of those games. Part of that were miscues that, through film study and three straight practices, can be corrected. But a lot of it is reaching a new intensity level, especially with Butler not set to return until if/when the Wolves make the playoffs.
“I think it’s good for the team,” Gibson said. “Being in a position like this is going to help Wiggins. It’s going to help Kat. It will help the guys understand what this playoff atmosphere is about, what it takes to get to the playoffs. And I think it’s good. It’s us against the world.”
For his part, Gibson said he needs to become more vocal with Butler hurt; all the veterans have to lead. But this is a team that, down the stretch, likely will go the way Towns and Wiggins go.
Gibson, repeating over and over again that he believes Wiggins has yet to scratch the surface of his talent, said Wiggins will have to start taking over games late.
“As we go deeper, and games get a little crazier, teams will try to take him away,” Gibson said. “We need him, we need Kat, everybody, to do their hardest. This is a time when there are no friends, no more pats on the back. You’ll hate the team you’re playing against, almost. These last games, everybody is playing for something.”
Wiggins’ role changed with the addition of Butler. But, with the star guard out, Wiggins said he’s ready to step back into a role similar to the one he had last year.
“I’ll see the ball a lot more,” he said. “I have to be more aggressive, make good decisions.”