Wolves, Thunder are incredibly close but one team looks like it's in better shape

MINNEAPOLIS — If the playoffs started now, after the Minnesota Timberwolves picked apart the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night with their increasingly balanced and unselfish approach, the Wolves would be sitting at the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference while the Thunder would be the seventh seed.

But a lot of things can happen between now and when the playoffs actually do start; we still have half a season to go. And a Thunder-Wolves matchup seems realistic for the first round, should the Thunder ever figure out how to approach the sky-high ceiling we projected for them when they acquired Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in the offseason.

The question is this: Which team, come playoff time, would be the better bet?

If you were looking at Wednesday night in a bubble, the answer would be the Timberwolves, resoundingly. The Timberwolves thoroughly dominated the Thunder in every aspect from tip to buzzer in a 104-88 decision. The Timberwolves moved the ball better (22 assists to OKC’s 13), shot the ball better (48.8 percent from the field to OKC’s 40.5), took care of the ball better (14 turnovers to OKC’s 19) and, amazingly, defended better.

This wasn’t like the early-season Andrew Wiggins banked-in buzzer-beater in OKC; this was the Wolves continuing a great streak of basketball that has them on a six-game home winning streak and 14-7 overall since Dec. 1. Over the past five weeks, the Wolves have looked like one of the NBA’s best teams. And the Thunder looked like they have all season: an inconsistent collection of individual talents who haven’t figured out how to fit together.

“Our defense got back to where it’s been, which was encouraging,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “Over the last couple games, that’s been something I’ve said there’s been some slippage in. But the effort was there. Sometimes, good offense will beat good defense.”

But is that something that will still be true in the playoffs, where rotations shorten and a stout defense becomes ever more important?

As good as the Timberwolves have been — and fourth place halfway into the season feels like a damn good scenario for a group that’s still learning to play with each other — their defense has been far from stout. They are ranked 20th in defensive efficiency. That’s far better than when they were in the bottom five in defense a month or so into the season, but it’s still not exactly inspiring when you’re looking toward the playoffs. There has been visible improvement over the past month or so, specifically for young stars Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. But this is a far cry from a vintage Tom Thibodeau defense.

The Thunder? When some saw this as a top team in the West going into the season, it was because we focused too much on this superstar-laden team’s ceiling. And this team’s ceiling is high. But we didn’t focus enough on what could be the floor for a team with such obvious egos and flaws. Sitting at seventh in the West, barely above .500 at 22-20 and riding a three-game losing streak, you have to assume that this is close to the Thunder’s floor.

Strikingly, advanced stats love the Thunder. The Thunder’s defense is dominant, among the best in the NBA (it has suffered during the past five games with Andre Roberson’s injury). While the Wolves’ net rating is 3.74, fifth in the NBA, the Thunder are right behind them with a 3.39 net rating that ranks seventh. Adjust those statistics with the strength of the opponent and the teams flip: The Thunder rank fifth in adjusted net rating and the Timberwolves sixth, according to Basketball Reference. According to a more predictive measure, Basketball Reference’s Simple Rating System, the Thunder are the third-rated team in the West after the Warriors and Rockets, with a 3.19 SRS. The Wolves are right behind them at 2.85. Those statistics will be even closer after Wednesday’s result.

They do it in different ways, but advanced statistics have these two teams almost exactly evenly matched.

However, the playoffs will mean vastly different things for these teams.

These two franchises approached the 2017-18 season with very different mentalities. For the Thunder, it’s the ultimate win-now season; win now, and perhaps Paul George decides to stay. For the Timberwolves, sure, they want to win now, but the near future for this team is even brighter than the immediate present. Assuming the Wolves sign Towns to a max extension next offseason, the core of this team — Towns, Wiggins and Jimmy Butler — will be around at least two more seasons after this one. So will starting point guard Jeff Teague. In time, with more seasons to gel under Thibodeau’s defensive tutelage and more time for Towns and Wiggins to mature as young superstars, this team ought to only get better.

Conventional wisdom might look at the defensive-minded, experienced Thunder as the favorite if these two teams meet in the playoffs.

But I wonder if there would be another dynamic at play: For the underachieving Thunder, everything would ride on one playoff series. For the upstart Timberwolves, there could be more looseness in a playoff series — more of a feeling that this marks a beginning more than a potential end.

Yes, I’m falling dangerously into pop psychology territory here. And it’s silly to put too much emphasis on a January game — especially when a key Thunder player was injured, and especially when it’s on the second game of a back-to-back.

But there’s something that feels very different in the trajectories of these two teams. Call it a gut feeling, but if the Thunder and the Wolves meet in the playoffs, I’m picking the same team that won Wednesday night.