SACRAMENTO, CALIF. – To reach the NBA playoffs, the Timberwolves have to chase down three other teams before they worry about catching Denver, situated in the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff step.
Now with 22 games remaining, they stepped forward with Monday night’s 102-88 victory over a Sacramento team that also is trying to fight the good playoff fight, even after the Kings traded All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins last week.
The Wolves trail Denver by 2½ games and Sacramento by 1½. But they also must chase down and pass Portland and Dallas as well in the season’s final six weeks.
Monday, they dominated a Kings team trying to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2006 — two years shorter than the Wolves’ drought — with the likes of Kosta Koufos, Willie Cauley-Stein, Ben McLemore and rookie Buddy Hield, now that Cousins is gone and Rudy Gay is out for the season.
The Wolves trailed by eight in the opening minutes but led by as many as 21 in the closing quarter, turning the game around with a 13-0 run in the second quarter. They then repelled a 12-0 Sacramento run in the third.
Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns stretched their streaks of 20-point outings by another game each. Wiggins finished with 27 points, while Towns had 29 points and 17 rebounds, falling a point short of becoming the third NBA player to have back-to-back games of at least 30 points and 15 rebounds this season. Rich Pedroncelli • Associated Press Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns got the better of former college teammate Willie Cauley-Stein on Monday night with 29 points and 17 rebounds.
Tyus Jones again provided valuable minutes alongside both Ricky Rubio and Kris Dunn, Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau’s counter move to Kings coach Dave Joerger’s decision to play two small guards and/or a three-guard lineup often.
And reserve forward Nemanja Bjelica provided his fourth career double-double and his first this season, finishing with 10 points and 12 rebounds. He was a team-high plus-27.
Wiggins’ extended the longest 20-point scoring streak in franchise history to 18 consecutive games when he turned Rubio’s alley into an athletic ally-oop. That dunk helped push the Kings away midway through the third quarter after their 12-0 run chopped a 19-point deficit just after halftime into a 63-56 deficit.
It was Towns’ 45th double-double game this season. Only Houston star James Harden with 48 has more in the NBA this season.
Towns put the exclamation point on the victory — their first in Sacramento’s new Golden 1 Center after they blew an 18-point lead during the season’s second game here — with a one-handed, alley-oop dunk that gave the Wolves a 101-84 lead with 2½ minutes left.
Normally, Thibodeau says he wants his team to blot out all “noise” and focus on what’s ahead of them each and every day. But he did acknowledge before Monday’s game that he wants his players to keep their eyes on the playoff ball, to an extent.
“It’s our business,” Thibodeau said before the game. “You’ve got to know what’s going on, but you also have to make sure how you prepare for each day. That’s a routine and a habit you have to build.
‘‘You want to create habits of excellence. How you prepare to play is critical.”
Judging from their start, the Wolves didn’t quite reach that kind of excellence.
They trailed 12-6 and 18-10 in the game’s first seven minutes and still lead 31-25 early in the second quarter the Wolves reversed the game’s course with a 13-0 run.
Towns made his first seven shots of the night and shot 8-for-9 from the floor by halftime, when the Wolves led 60-44.
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