MINNEAPOLIS — When the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves parted for the All-Star break, the two had nearly identical records and were looking up at several teams for a possible playoff spot.
Dallas and Minnesota reconvene against each other Friday, with each team still eyeing the playoffs. The teams saw Thursday’s trade deadline differently and test out their approach as the season resumes.
The Mavericks were one of the few teams to make a move, sending center Andrew Bogut, swingman Justin Anderson and a first-round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers. Dallas received center Nerlens Noel, the former sixth-overall pick in the 2013 draft who has dealt with injuries and was stuck behind emerging talent Joel Embiid in Philadelphia.
The Timberwolves were mentioned plenty in trade rumors, particularly with point guard Ricky Rubio being named and a rumor including New York Knicks point guard Derrick Rose. Minnesota declined to make changes, believing in a young team that has been improved a bit under coach Tom Thibodeau.
“If something made sense, we would have done it,” Thibodeau said. “But it had to make sense and it had to make us better. If it didn’t, be patient and continue to work. We know where we are in terms of our young guys, they’re going to get better. So that’s what we’re concentrating on right now is the guys that we do have.”
The Timberwolves (22-35) entered the break with a victory at Denver (25-32), which holds the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. But while there are four teams between Minnesota and the Nuggets, only three games separated them.
Two of those teams made moves to better themselves. Dallas added Noel and New Orleans made the big splash to acquire DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings, in ninth, lost Cousins.
The Timberwolves liked where they were with Rubio playing his best of the season to go along with center Karl-Anthony Towns and leading scorer Andrew Wiggins. Since going 11-26 to start the season, Minnesota is 11-9 and won two of its three games into the break.
“I love our team,” Thibodeau said. “I love the way we’re working. I think we’re improving and that’s our challenge, Obviously, we know where we want to go. We have to put the work in to getting there. There are no shortcuts to it. It requires a great commitment and a lot of work, and everyone putting what they have into each and every day.”
In the 20-game stretch where Minnesota has shown improvement, Rubio has averaged 11.9 points, 10.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game. He’s shot 39.4 percent from the field in that time.
Thibodeau says they are fine with standing pat:
“I believe this team can make the playoffs and we can make a push,” Rubio said. “We’ve been working hard all year long. We didn’t start the season as we wanted, but I think we’re making a run lately. We just have to keep pushing.”
Dallas added Noel and waived veteran point guard Deron Williams. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said the moves were a way to get younger and also give Williams to catch on with a potential playoff team.
“We have a young core that we like,” Carlisle said earlier in the day before the Noel and Williams moves were officially announced. “We have some veterans that we really like. It’s pretty clear we need to get the team younger. We need to advance the franchise forward. Often times doing that can be painful because when you go younger, it’s difficult to win. But that experience you gain, as we’ve seen this year, is very, very important.”
Dallas (22-34) is a half-game ahead of Minnesota. The team hasn’t announced if Noel will play Friday. However, rookie point guard Yogi Ferrell is expected to take over full time for Williams. Ferrell averaged 14.2 points and 4.7 assists in 10 games since signing with the Mavericks.
Dallas went 8-3 in an 11-game stretch before losing their first two contests before the break.
“Well, we’ve won a significant number of games during our best stretch of the season, essentially, with this group,” Carlisle said. “I like our chances to compete and win games going forward here.”
With Noel joining the roster, Dallas achieved its goal of getting younger and is certainly more athletic. Noel averaged 10.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game in his career. He averaged only 19.4 minutes with Philadelphia this season.
“He’s an athletic big,” Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki said. “He’s young, got a lot of potential. He’s a rim protector and he’s long. He can finish around the rim and I think I guess that’s what they were looking for.”
Carlisle said J.J. Barea could be nearing a return from a calf injury but is likely out the next three games. Minnesota declared forward Adreian Payne (illness) out for Friday.
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