Wolves enter playoff picture

Published 8:56 am Thursday, March 8, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — There is a new vibe buzzing through Target Center these days, something wholly unfamiliar to a Minnesota Timberwolves team that lost 132 games the previous two seasons and hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004.

“I don’t think anybody can really say that we’re the laughing stock of the NBA anymore,” Wes Johnson said. “If you come in here thinking that, you’re going to catch an ‘L’ real quick.”

The Portland Trail Blazers were just the latest team to discover that.

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Johnson scored 19 points to back Kevin Love’s 29 points and 16 rebounds in Minnesota’s 106-94 victory over the Blazers on Wednesday night.

Johnson went 3 of 4 on 3-pointers and Luke Ridnour added 22 points for the Timberwolves (21-19), who moved into the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoff race. They own the tiebreaker over Houston, which lost earlier Wednesday.

“If you would’ve said this to me last year, that we were going to be in the eighth spot this year, I would have probably told you you were lying,” Johnson said.

While the Timberwolves are surging with five straight home wins and eight victories in their last 11 games, the Blazers look lost out there.

“We’re searching. I just don’t know what we’re searching for,” forward Gerald Wallace said. “I don’t know what to say.”

All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge had 22 points and seven rebounds for the Blazers, who have lost four of their last five games. Wallace had 13 points, nine assists and nine rebounds.

Does it feel like the ship is sinking?

“Yeah. And it can sink real fast on this road trip,” said Wallace, whose Blazers head to Boston, Washington, Indiana, New York, Chicago and Oklahoma City over the next 11 days. “This was a must-win game for us. We go and we’ve got to play some tough teams.”

Aldridge went 2 for 3 from the free throw line — his first foul shots in four games — but was badly outplayed by Love for the second straight game. He was held to just five points in the second half and two in the fourth quarter.

Love was 3 of 5 behind the arc and played the entire second half to help the Wolves outlast the Blazers for their fifth win in seven games.

Raymond Felton had 23 points and nine assists for the Blazers, who cut the deficit to six points with 4:15 to play.

But Ridnour hit a 3 and a pair of free throws, and former Blazer Martell Webster knocked down another from behind the arc for a 102-88 lead that put away the game.

Jamal Crawford, who has been linked to Minnesota in trade rumors recently, had just six points on 3-for-13 shooting. The Blazers made just 3 of 23 from 3-point range.

“I think at the end of the day, we’re only humans. So, no matter what somebody says, I’m sure it’s in the back of their heads a little bit,” Crawford said of the trade talk. “But we have to be professional and go out and do the best job we can.”

Love scored 15 points in the first quarter, hitting all three of his 3-pointers to get the Wolves going. But it was Johnson’s out-of-nowhere complementary play that made all the difference.

The second-year wing has been a disappointment since he was taken with the fourth overall pick before last season. He struggled to find his shooting touch and gave the Wolves almost nothing offensively from a position geared toward big production in Rick Adelman’s system.

He scored 10 points in the first quarter, hitting a rare jumper off the dribble, two 3-pointers and showing the first real signs of his standout days at Syracuse. He threw down two put-back dunks and fed Love for a pretty three-point play in the second quarter.

Aldridge went to the bench early in the first quarter after picking up two quick fouls, but got rolling in the second quarter with 13 points.

He did most of his damage while Love rested on the bench, feasting on Darko Milicic, who got his second straight start for the injured Nikola Pekovic.

“You never want to start a road trip like this, with a loss,” Crawford said. “You want momentum and start off with a win. Mood’s pretty down for sure.”

It was the fifth straight home win for the Timberwolves, who need to capitalize on this homestand. They beat the Clippers on Monday night and have games against the Lakers on Friday night and the Hornets on Saturday before embarking on a seven-game road trip that could define their season.

“We’re talking about the fact that we’re relevant right now,” coach Rick Adelman said. “We’ve made a run here that got us to that position. There’s no reason we’re different than anybody else that are in those spots. We can win games and we can stay right there.”

NOTES: The Blazers were 3 for 4 on free throws. The Wolves went 19 for 26. … Timberwolves G J.J. Barea limped off the court with a left ankle injury midway through the fourth quarter and did not return. … Pekovic said he didn’t think his sore foot was going to be a long-term injury. “A few days,” he said. … Crawford was averaging 17.4 points on 55 percent shooting in his previous five games.