NEW ORLEANS – Even after another close Timberwolves road loss Friday, Taj Gibson was still able to crack a small smile. It came as he was breaking out a few colorful phrases to describe where the Timberwolves are at after another winless road trip.
“Right now the bandwagon is empty, but I like it,” Gibson said. “Just got to stay with the same routine, putting your work in, stay locked in and be ready, wait for the cavalry to come. I’m hoping the cavalry does come.”
The cavalry better hurry, because the Wolves are losing ground quickly.
Gibson was referring to the injured Wolves who haven’t been a part of the majority of recent games, such as Robert Covington, Derrick Rose, Tyus Jones and Jeff Teague — the last of whom played for the first time in nine games Friday.
For a while, the Wolves kept winning enough games to stay near the No. 8 seed in the standings despite the injuries, and at Thursday’s trade deadline, the front office didn’t make any moves as the Wolves want to try and cash in their slim playoff odds.
But that deadline inaction coincided with one of the worst weeks the Wolves have had this season — four straight losses, three on the road, which has been a bugaboo for this particular team. With a 25-30 record, the Wolves were 4 ½ games back of the No. 8 seed Clippers entering Saturday.
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As a result, as of Saturday afternoon Basketball Reference gave the Wolves a better chance of winning the draft lottery (3.1 percent) than making the playoffs (2.1 percent).
Perhaps things would be different if the Wolves were able to win just a few more games on the road, where they are 8-20.
“I’ll study it over the next couple days,” interim coach Ryan Saunders said. “I wish I had answer, what the missing element is.”
Three times this season the Wolves have had road trips of three or more games, and three times they have come back with a goose egg.
Each of those trips was damaging in its own way for the Wolves. There was an 0-5 West Coast trip in November that pushed the Wolves to a 4-9 start and prompted Tom Thibodeau to finally pull the trigger on dealing Jimmy Butler. The Wolves hadn’t been five games under .500 since then — until Friday.
The Wolves went back West in early December with the mood around the team changed. But on the first of that four-game trip in Portland, Covington sat out, marking the first night he lost a game to problems with his right knee. Before that, the Wolves had gone on a 9-3 stretch, and their defense was among the best in the league thanks in large part to Covington.
But when Covington returned to the lineup, he wasn’t the same and neither was the Wolves defense. They went 0-4 on that trip, erasing the good vibes that had come in the wake of the Butler trade. Covington has since missed the past 18 games, with the Wolves going 8-10 in that span.
This week began with an agonizing home loss to Denver before the Wolves dropped three winnable games on the road against teams unlikely to make the playoffs — and some of those teams were shorthanded.
Memphis was without Marc Gasol as the Grizzlies held him out before the trade deadline. Orlando was missing rookie big man Mo Bamba on Thursday, and the Pelicans didn’t play Anthony Davis in the fourth quarter of a close game — his first back from the trade rumors that had surrounded him. But the Wolves couldn’t take advantage
For a while, they have tried not to make excuses for all the injuries, but Friday they admitted they are struggling to keep pace.
“Sometimes when you’re low on bodies, it feels as the game goes on and teams go on runs, you could almost think it’s déjà vu,” Saunders said.
It’s a feeling Wolves fans know all too well.