The Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors will each attempt to distance themselves from the NBA's play-in tournament when the Western Conference playoff hopefuls duel Sunday night in San Francisco.
Playoff position, how the season series plays out and postseason tiebreakers are all in play when the clubs meet for the fourth and final time this season, with Golden State having taken two of the first three meetings.
The Warriors (39-36) and Timberwolves (37-37) began the weekend on opposite sides of the play-in line, with Golden State sixth and Minnesota seventh in the West.
A Warriors win Sunday would go a long way toward assuring they will finish ahead of the Timberwolves in the final standings. It not only would create a 2 1/2-game gap with just six to play, but it would also give Golden State the season-series tiebreaker.
On the other hand, a Timberwolves victory would trim their deficit to a half-game while evening the season series in addition to giving Minnesota a leg up on the second playoff tiebreaker -- conference record -- with both teams beginning play Sunday at 25-20.
The Timberwolves have won two in a row, with perhaps no game this season having been more important than Wednesday's 125-124 home thriller against the Atlanta Hawks.
Not only did the Timberwolves avoid a 38th loss, which would have dropped them at least two spots in the Western standings, but they also welcomed back Karl-Anthony Towns from a 51-game absence due to a strained right calf.
Towns contributed 22 points to the win in 26 minutes, saving his biggest two points for a pair of go-ahead foul shots with 3.6 seconds remaining.
"This is what movies is made of. This is what movies is made of," Towns gushed into a live mic in front of Timberwolves fans shortly after the final horn. "Four months away, I come back, two free throws, don't worry about it. I got that."
Timberwolves coach Chris Finch has indicated Towns will be on a minutes restriction in upcoming games, meaning it's possible he won't play both ends of a back-to-back that wraps up Monday in Sacramento.
No indication has been given as to which game Towns might miss, but the Golden State matchup has far more meaning to the Timberwolves because of their proximity in the standings.
Minnesota was missing Anthony Edwards for a third straight game Wednesday because of a sprained right ankle. He got the green light to return to practice Friday but missed that session with an illness that also leaves him questionable for the Golden State showdown.
The Warriors, meanwhile, remain without Andrew Wiggins for personal reasons, but could see Gary Payton II make his team debut after having been acquired from Portland in February. Payton had been dealing with an adductor injury, but he is probable for the meeting with Minnesota.
Payton participated in a Warriors workout Saturday and declared himself ready to play for the first time since, coincidentally, a Trail Blazers-Warriors game on Feb. 8.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr noted he's very much looking forward to the addition.
"He's so good on the ball, but he's also good off the ball and playing in the passing lanes," Kerr claimed of the defensive ace. "Gary is also a great finisher in transition. And we're either last or near the bottom in transition points per possession this year, which should not be the case."
The Warriors have edged up the Western standings with three consecutive wins in a five-day span, including a 120-112 home triumph over the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday.
--Field Level Media