MIAMI — The Minnesota Timberwolves, just 10-21 on the road this season, have a difficult assignment Friday night.
That’s when the Timberwolves (28-39) visit the Miami Heat (33-35), who are the hottest team in the NBA for the past two months. During that span, the Heat is 22-5.
Miami’s 120-112 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night vaulted the Heat into a virtual tie with the Detroit Pistons for eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
It is the first time all year that the Heat has been in position for that final playoff spot in the East, and it took a lot of consistent winning to get out from under a brutal 11-30 start.
“We have to keep pushing forward,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Our players are focused on finishing the job.”
In Wednesday’s win, the Heat got 33 points from point guard Goran Dragic, who came back after missing one game after having been elbowed in his right eye.
Dragic’s eye was swollen shut as recently as Sunday night, but his quick return didn’t surprise Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry.
“I coached him for four years (in Phoenix),” Gentry said. “He’s one the toughest guys in the league.”
Dragic, who finished just one point short of his season high, made 11 of 18 shots from the floor, 5 of 9 on 3-pointers and 6 of 8 on free throws. He also committed just one turnover in 33 minutes.
It is the type of efficient performance the Heat have been getting from a lot of their players during the hot streak. Center Hassan Whiteside, for example, leads the NBA with 14.3 rebounds per game and he is fourth in blocks with 131.
On Wednesday, Whiteside produced 20 points, 17 rebounds and two blocks, making 9 of 11 shots from the floor and 2 of 2 from the foul line.
The Heat bench has also been a key during this resurgence. Combo guard Tyler Johnson had 10 points and a career-high nine assists against New Orleans. Shooting guard Wayne Ellington had 19 points and has reached double figures in seven of his past eight games. He made 7 of 10 shots against New Orleans, including 5 of 8 on 3-pointers.
Versatile forward James Johnson came off the bench to provide 10 points, four rebounds and four assists. He was plus-14, the best performance of anybody on that AmericanAirlines court on Wednesday night.
And so it goes for this Heat team. They have put together one of the most amazing in-season comebacks in NBA history, and they do not appear close to being done yet.
Meanwhile, the Timberwolves, despite some significant talent and the NBA’s past two Rookies of the Year, are likely to miss the playoffs for the 13th consecutive season.
With 15 games remaining in their regular season, the Timberwolves woke up Thursday morning to find that they are four games out of the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot. To get there, the Timberwolves would have to jump over three teams — the Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets.
“We took a step back,” Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio admitted after his team lost 117-104 to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night.
Rubio has been one of the Minnesota bright spots, ranking fourth in the league with 8.9 assists and sixth in steals at 1.8. Another standout is center Karl-Anthony Towns, who ranks sixth in the NBA in rebounds (12.3) and 13th in scoring (24.3). He has 51 double-doubles this season.
But the T-Wolves lost standout wing Zach LaVine last month when he tore the ACL in his left knee. He is done for the season — a major loss.
In addition, reserves Lance Stephenson and Nemanja Bjelica left Wednesday’s game due to left ankle injuries. Their status for the Heat game is unknown.
Minnesota has played reasonably well of late — 7-4 since Feb. 15 with one of those losses coming in overtime — but the red-hot Heat are seemingly on another level.
To score the upset over Miami, the T-Wolves will need big games by Towns and Andrew Wiggins — their two recent Rookies of the Year. Wiggins, by the way, is averaging 22.9 points.
Another player to watch is 6-6 small forward Shabazz Muhammad, who has averaged 9.5 points as Minnesota’s most consistent bench scorer.
“We can’t skip over steps,” Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau told the media on Wednesday when asked about Minnesota’s building process. “I want the guys to understand where we are and what goes into winning each game.”
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