Is Tyus Jones ready for a larger role?

Jeff Teague arrived in Minnesota with a three-year, $57 million contract and a reputation for being a solid point guard who could score and distribute while potentially being a defensive liability. He’s been pretty much as advertised through the Wolves’ first 35 games, and while they owe their 22-13 record more to a handful of other players Teague has been a meaningful contributor.

He’s also been put in two unenviable positions of comparison.

One is to departed point guard Ricky Rubio, a fan favorite even as he polarized the Timberwolves’ rooting base by being quite good at everything except one very important thing: shooting the basketball. It was that deficiency that led coach/basketball boss Tom Thibodeau to move on from Rubio in an offseason unloading trade to the Jazz and to bring in Teague — a much better shooter but a much less flashy passer, among other things.

The second comparison is to backup point guard Tyus Jones — an improving third-year player and astute floor general who also happens to hold a trump card of being a Twin Cities native.

There are Wolves fans who can’t stop wondering what this team would have looked like if Rubio was still here with the improved supporting cast Thibodeau built in the offseason. And there are Wolves fans who have watched Jones and Teague this year and wondered if Jones should be playing more minutes than he has — or even more minutes than Teague.

They will get what they asked for on that second front, albeit under the worst circumstances of a Teague knee injury sustained late in Wednesday’s dramatic overtime win over Denver. Teague has a sprained knee and will miss an unspecified amount of time.

The question now becomes: Is Jones ready for an expanded role?

A quick look at the numbers would seem to suggest he is.

By several measures, Jones has outplayed Teague this season — albeit in playing about half the minutes. In terms of offensive and defensive rating — a measure of points produced or allowed per 100 possessions — Jones has been superior. He’s posted a 125 offensive rating and a 109 defensive rating (per Basketball Reference), while Teague’s offensive rating is 108 compared to a defensive rating of 112.

Jones has a higher true shooting percentage (.598 compared to .549 for Teague), in large part because Jones has actually been better than Teague from three-point range (41.9 percent to 37.5). Teague has a higher assist rate, but Jones turns the ball over less and produces more rebounds and steals.

Most importantly, when Teague was sidelined for a few games earlier this year, Jones showed he could handle an increased workload. In his three starts, Jones played at least 38 minutes each game and the Wolves went 2-1. Jones was a combined plus-45 in those three games (meaning the Wolves outscored opponents by 45 points when he was on the floor).

That said, there’s a big difference between playing well as a fill-in starter for a few games plus performing well off the bench in other games … and being the main guy almost every night like Teague has been. Jones has had the benefit of playing against other teams’ backups in some cases, and playing fewer minutes can hide a player’s weaknesses. Does Jones have the size, strength and quickness to match up with top point guards in the league? It’s a legitimate question.

Jones, though, does have the sort of skill set that would seem to mesh well with the other Wolves starters. The way he gets the Wolves organized is reminiscent, in fact, of Rubio’s skill set.

Jones has played 93 minutes this year in a lineup with the other four Wolves regular starters — Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Andrew Wiggins — and the Wolves have outscored opponents by an average of 10.9 points per 100 possessions during those minutes.

It seems a safe bet to assume Jones will add to that total quite a bit Thursday night when the Wolves face Milwaukee in the second night of back-to-back games.

Beyond that, we’ll have to wait and see how he responds and how long Teague is out.

Rams’ decision to rest starters Sunday could impact Vikings

Week 17 in the NFL is a weird mix of teams with nothing to play for but pride, others with plenty on the line and a few who have a little bit to play for but are more interested in answering the question of whether it’s more important to keep momentum going into the postseason or more important to give key players a week of rest.

In the NFC, there are some obvious teams who fall into these categories.

The Eagles are locked into the No. 1 seed and can decide whether to rest players or try to keep them focused knowing that they can rest the following week since they’ve earned a bye.

The Vikings are still working to clinch the No. 2 seed, and the easiest way to do that is to beat the Bears on Sunday. The Saints can clinch their division with a win over Tampa, while Carolina can steal the division instead with a win over Atlanta. The Falcons, too, can clinch a wild card spot with a win.

So the Vikings, Saints and Panthers have plenty to play for, while at least the Vikings and Saints opponents, the Bears and Tampa, have nothing but pride at stake.

In the weird middle, though, are the Rams. They’ve already clinched their division and sit at 11-4. With a win, they can lock up the No. 3 seed, but they can do no better than that. With a loss, they would fall no further than the No. 4 seed. In both cases, they’d have a home playoff game to start the postseason.

With nothing more than seeding at stake, it sounds as though the Rams are giving heavy consideration to resting a bunch of starters for Sunday’s finale against the 49ers.

“Being locked into that third or fourth seed — every single game is important — but I think it will provide an opportunity for us to potentially get some guys healthier, rest them, give some other guys a chance to step up,” head coach Sean McVay said Tuesday.

That decision could impact how the NFC playoff picture shakes out, and by extension could impact the Vikings.

A Rams win, as noted, would make them the No. 3 seed and put them on course to play either Seattle or Atlanta (the teams battling for the No. 6 seed) in the wild card round. If the Rams won that game, they would play the No. 2 seed in the division round — the spot that the Vikings will claim unless four different things go wrong Sunday. Even if New Orleans won Sunday, the Saints would be the No. 4 seed and would face Carolina in the wild card round. The winner of that game, assuming the No. 3 seed Rams won their game, would face Philadelphia.

But if the Rams lose and New Orleans wins Sunday, the Rams would be the No. 4 seed. New Orleans would be No. 3. And if both won in the wild card round, the Saints would play the Vikings (assuming they hold down the No. 2 seed) and the Rams would face the Eagles. The Rams could still defeat the 49ers Sunday even while resting players, but L.A. at full strength certainly has a better chance of doing that.

So McVay’s decision could be about giving players rest. It could also be about creating a potentially easier path in the playoffs. Who would you rather line up to face if you were the Rams: Carolina at home and Philly on the road or Seattle/Atlanta at home and the Vikings on the road? I’d pick the first one given how the Eagles have looked without Carson Wentz.

Either way, the Vikings would have a tough matchup in the division round if either New Orleans or the Rams advanced as the No. 3 seed. It’s entirely possible, of course, that one or both will lose, shaking up the seeding even more. Remember, the team with the worst remaining seed after the wild card round faces the No. 1 seed, while the better of the two faces the No. 2 seed.

And yes, the Vikings still need to secure that No. 2 seed. It’s worth noting on that front that the Rams’ decision could play a role in that as well. Though it shouldn’t come to this, the Vikings can still claim the No. 2 seed even with a loss to the Bears at home Sunday if New Orleans wins … or Carolina loses … or the Rams win.

If you thought the Rams game against the 49ers was a strong line of defense against catastrophe, it feels less like that if L.A. is resting a bunch of players.

Timberwolves are eight games over .500 for first time since 2003-04

Mark this down as a bit of trivia and a milestone: With their Christmas win over the Lakers, the Timberwolves improved to 21-13. That puts them eight games over .500 for the first time since the 2003-04 season, which was also the last time they made the playoffs — going all the way that season to the Western Conference finals.

The Wolves finished that year 58-24 (34 games over .500, which is quite a few more than eight). In the following season, Minnesota was seven games over .500 a few times early on, the last being at 15-8. The Wolves lost eight of their next 10 games, and not long after that Flip Saunders was fired. Thus began the organization’s descent into various rebuilds.

They made it to six games over .500 early in 2005-06. Since then, they hadn’t really sniffed such a high-water mark as eight games over — until Monday, when they won their fourth game in a row by knocking off the Lakers 121-104.

The Wolves are now on pace to finish 50-32, which would be 18 games over .500. They’ve finished with 50 wins or more four times in franchise history.

Eagles’ vulnerability creates interesting question for Vikings

SI’s Peter King pretty much nailed it this morning when writing about how bad the Eagles looked Monday, even in defeating the Raiders 19-10. The game was tied 10-10 late, and the Raiders had plenty of chances to go ahead. Philly’s defense — which is formidable, to say the least — bailed the team out. The offense, though, looks like a mess after Nick Foles took over at QB for the injured Carson Wentz. King wrote:

Philadelphia clinched home-field advantage in the NFC last night with some sort of Christmas miracle, the 19-10 high-wire win over Oakland. But it’s hard to think of a win that felt more like a loss for Philadelphia than this game. … Foles now has a five-point win over the moribund Giants and an all-time lucky win over the disorganized (that’s putting it nicely) Raiders. The next game he has that means something is nearly three weeks away. The Eagles’ staff has a lot of work to do to find some way that Foles can perform competently to win a playoff game.

As King noted, it was a win and it did give the Eagles the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The Vikings have a very good chance to secure the No. 2 seed next weekend. The only way they wouldn’t is if they lose to the Bears, while the Saints lose, the Rams lose and Carolina wins. FiveThirtyEight gives Minnesota a better than 99 percent chance of securing that No. 2 seed and the bye that goes with it. That’s not 100 percent, but it gives you an idea of the path.

So let’s say the Vikings wrap up that No. 2 seed next weekend. And let’s say the Saints wind up as the No. 3 seed while the Rams end up No. 4 (or even vice-versa). And then let’s say the Vikings manage to win their divisional game after the bye to reach the NFC title game.

And let’s say in that same divisional weekend, the Eagles had to play either the Rams or Saints.

If you’re the Vikings or a Vikings fan would you rather have an NFC title game at home against the Rams or Saints — two teams that have potentially explosive offenses and healthy starting QBs — or would you rather play at Philadelphia in what could be a defensive struggle but a game in which the Vikings would seemingly have an edge at least on offense?

Obviously this isn’t a true “choice” since the Vikings won’t have any influence over what happens in other games and they will have to win a tough game before getting to the NFC title game, but after watching the Eagles on Christmas I’m not sure which outcome I’d prefer even if it means going on the road into a hostile and cold environment.

Your thoughts, please, in the comments.

Which teams should Vikings fans root for this weekend? It’s complicated

The Vikings have two games remaining in the regular season starting with Saturday night’s game at Lambeau Field. Their playoff scenarios range from very easy to very complicated, so this exercise — whereby I will try to help you figure out which teams to root for this weekend in other games — is either a complete waste of time or very helpful.

Either way, let’s sort it out:

*The Vikings control their own destiny in terms of grabbing at least the No. 2 seed (and the first-round bye that goes with it). If they win their final two games, they are assured of no worse than the No. 2 seed, though the only way they could get the No. 1 seed is if the Eagles lose their final two games.

*Just by winning Saturday at Green Bay — where Minnesota is favored by 9 points now that Aaron Rodgers has been placed on injured reserve — the Vikings would have a 99 percent chance of grabbing a first-round bye, per FiveThirtyEight.com. That said, there would still be helpful things in other games that could happen Sunday and Monday. And if the Vikings lose on Saturday? That’s when things get even more intriguing and complicated. Here are the six games to watch outside of Vikings/Packers, which remember is Saturday night and will be done before any of these others begin:

*Buccaneers at Panthers: Win or lose Saturday, the Vikings want the Panthers to lose Sunday. Carolina has the best chance to steal that first-round bye from the Vikings based on a head-to-head win a couple weeks back. The Panthers are 10-4 and trail Minnesota (11-3) by one game. A Vikings win Saturday and a Carolina loss Sunday would clinch a first-round bye for Minnesota. But Carolina is a heavy favorite over Tampa Bay.

*Falcons at Saints: Here’s where it gets complicated. If the Vikings lose Saturday and Carolina wins Sunday, fans probably want the Saints to win this game. That might seem contrary to logic since New Orleans is battling the Vikings for a bye, but the Saints are tied for their division lead with Carolina right now, and both have 10-4 records. If the Saints and Carolina finish tied at the end of the season, New Orleans wins that tiebreaker for the division title. And then if the Vikings and Saints finished with the same record as division winners — say, 12-4 — Minnesota would win that tiebreaker based on a head-to-head win and still get the No. 2 seed. What the Vikings absolutely don’t want is for Carolina to finish 12-4 while no other division winner aside from the Vikings finishes 12-4. That said, if both the Vikings and Carolina lose this weekend, the Vikings want the Saints to also lose because it would improve their chances of getting the No. 2 seed.

Rams at Titans: This is almost an identical scenario to New Orleans. If Carolina wins, the Vikings want the Rams (10-4) to win because that would help them keep pace with the Panthers. If Carolina is able to top the Saints and win its division at 12-4, the Vikings could still be the No. 2 seed if the Rams and Vikings also win their division with 12-4 records. The reason? In a three-team tiebreaker, head-to-head wouldn’t be an issue issue in this case because the Panthers and Rams didn’t play. The tiebreaker used would be conference record, and the Vikings would win that and be the No. 2 seed. The Vikings would also win a three-team tiebreaker if they finish 12-4 atop their division while the Rams and Saints also finish 12-4. But if the Vikings and Carolina both lose, the Vikings would want the Rams to lose.

Essentially, if the Vikings lose on Saturday, they want the Saints and Rams to win if the Panthers win, and they want the Saints and Rams to lose if the Panthers lose. Worst-case scenario is Vikings lose, Panthers win, Saints lose and Rams lose. That would bump the Vikings’ odds of getting a first-round bye down to 67 percent going into the final weekend. Minnesota would then be dependent on Atlanta beating Carolina in the season finale in order to get a bye.

*Raiders at Eagles: This one is simple. If the Vikings win, they want the Eagles to lose in order to keep the shot at the No. 1 seed in play. An Eagles win this weekend — or a Vikings loss — would eliminate that chance.

*Lions at Bengals; Seahawks at Cowboys: Neither of these games have a direct bearing on the Vikings’ seeding since all three are essentially battling for wild card spots (and are all long shots to make the playoffs). If you had a preference, though, you might want the Lions to win, which would damage the chances of both Seattle and Dallas to make a run. Seattle isn’t the team it used to be, but the Seahawks could still be dangerous in the playoffs. Dallas gets running back Ezekiel Elliott back this weekend and could be a tough matchup for someone if they can squeeze into the postseason. Detroit did beat the Vikings at home earlier this year, but I’d take my chances against the Lions in the playoffs before either of those other two teams. Detroit and Seattle wins this weekend would eliminate Dallas and would set up the Lions to have a chance to make the playoffs in Week 17.

Adam Thielen could finish with more yards than any Vikings WR other than Randy Moss

Vikings Pro Bowl wide receiver Adam Thielen already reached one major yardage milestone this season when he became the first Minnesota receiver since Sidney Rice in 2009 to top 1,000 yards.

But here’s an even better honor still within reach for Thielen:

With two games left, Thielen has 1,191 receiving yards. That puts him No. 14 on the Vikings’ all-time single-season list — not bad, but again he has two games remaining.

If he hits his season average of 85 yards Saturday against Green Bay, he’ll move into the top 10. If he hits that average again in two weeks against Chicago — assuming the Vikings have something to play for in that game and all the regulars play four quarters — he would move into the top five.

And if he gets 181 yards or more between the next two games, he would finish in the top four, beating Cris Carter’s best season of 1,371 yards in 1995. If Thielen did that, he would have the most receiving yards in a season of any Vikings receiver other than Randy Moss, who holds the top three spots.

With a couple of monster games, it’s even conceivable Thielen could top two of those Moss seasons (1,413 yards in 1999 and 1,437 in 2000), though Moss’ team record of 1,632 in 2003 seems safe.

Still, the fact that Thielen — an undrafted free agent who grew up in Minnesota idolozing Moss — could pass Carter and have only Moss above him in the team record books is pretty amazing.

For Gophers football fans, the vision should be 2020 (and beyond)

The Gophers football program and head coach P.J. Fleck deserve the victory lap they were able to take Wednesday, when they delivered the most highly regarded recruiting class around here in almost a decade, if not of all-time.

Fleck was brought in to provide energy and build a program, with recruiting at the heart of his message. He’s been everything as advertised so far.

At times like this, it’s easy to get swept up in the momentum. It’s just as important, then, to hit the pause button around signing day to remember that winning the recruiting battles leads to eventual success — not immediate success — on the field.

If you’re a Gophers football fan, your vision should be 2020 and beyond.

That’s the season when these recruits — the first group Fleck was able to spend an entire cycle pursuing at Minnesota — will be in their third year in the program. Those who stick and devleop will be redshirt sophomores or true juniors, depending on quickly they earn their way onto the field.

That would be Fleck’s fourth season, which seems to be a magic number if we look at a couple of meaningful (if imperfect) parallels.

In his previous head coaching job at Western Michigan, Fleck went 1-11 in his first season, 8-5 in both of his next two seasons and then 13-1 (with a competitive Cotton Bowl loss to Wisconsin) in the fourth year.

Fleck is often compared at Minnesota to Richard Pitino, another young coach who preached patience after taking over for a regime that had experienced some success but not quite enough of it.

Pitino’s Gophers had enough holdovers to just miss the NCAA tourney his first year, instead winning the NIT title. They faded his second year and bottomed out his third year before jolting forward with 24 wins and an NCAA tourney berth last season — year four.

Fleck’s Gophers were 5-7 last season. They might have been able to squeeze another win and bowl game appearance out of their talent and schedule, but ultimately the program would have been in the same spot as it is now.

Fleck’s Year 2 Gophers — and their fans — should expect more competent QB play if junior college transfer Vic Viramontes is as good as his numbers suggest. Next year’s schedule is friendly enough that a spot in a bowl game is a reasonable expectation as long as the QB play is upgraded.

We might say the same thing about 2019, Year 3, as well. The first five Big Ten games that year — at Purdue, vs. Illinois, vs. Nebraska, at Rutgers, vs. Maryland — are potentially cushy enough for Minnesota to arrive a year early, at least in the standings.

But 2020, Year 4, is where sights should be set in terms of real and meaningful expectations. The schedule is less forgiving, but by then it shouldn’t matter. If Fleck has done the job he wants to do, the Gophers — led by this year’s incoming class and other classes that follow — should be competitive against pretty much every opponent.

If we’re talking in December 2020 not just about a meaningful recruiting class but a meaningful bowl game, you will likely be able to trace its origins back to Wednesday. Now it’s just a matter of watching and waiting.

Case Keenum is an MVP candidate, but he might not get a single vote

A month ago, I asked if Vikings QB Case Keenum was a top-10 NFL MVP candidate based on an ESPN midseason piece that looked at candidates. While Keenum wasn’t listed in the top 10 at the time, I argued that soon he could supplant those above him on the list.

Here we are a month later, with Keenum having played well during that stretch while others have faltered. He’s now No. 5 on that same updated ESPN list of NFL MVPs candidates, a list arrived at by asking 12 self-termed experts to compile their top five candidates and then ranking them according to a points system.

Tom Brady was the landslide winner, garnering 11 of 12 first place votes and 59 of a possible 60 points. Rams running back Todd Gurley was second with 27 points, followed by injured Eagles QB Carson Wentz (21), Saints QB Drew Brees (17) and Keenum (14).

Russell Wilson, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Jared Goff all had at least six points apiece.

This process is hardly scientific, but it confirms what most people would agree: With Wentz injured, Brady is almost a lock to win this year’s NFL MVP award.

I say almost because there are still two games left and, in the year of the injury, Brady needs to stay upright and productive to clinch this thing. As long as he does that, he’s going to win his third MVP award after also winning in 2007 and 2010.

And as long as Brady stays healthy, Keenum might not even get a single MVP vote.

The reason? The process used by the Associated Press to vote for NFL MVP leaves no room for anyone but the winner. There are 50 voters, and each of them chooses a single candidate. The player with the most votes wins — no tallying of first, second, third, etc. Just one.

If voters have to pick just one QB, they will pick a healthy Brady in a landslide. Keenum might not get a single vote.

Last year, only six players in total got votes — and MVP Matt Ryan got 25 of the 50, with Brady finishing a distant second with 10. Aaron Rodgers, who had a monster year for the Packers, managed just two votes.

I could envision Brady getting at least 40 votes this year as long as he stays healthy these final two games. Wentz might still get a few votes for his brilliance before the injury. Gurley will get a few from voters who think outside the QB box. There will be precious few votes left.

If the NFL had a voting system in which choosers picked their top five, I could see Keenum finishing pretty high on enough ballots to be a factor — though not a winner — in the race, particularly if he plays well in these final two games and Minnesota secures a first-round bye.

With the way the voting goes, though, I could see Keenum getting shut out entirely despite being a viable candidate in a remarkable year.

Vikings favored by more than a touchdown at Green Bay with Rodgers out

Getting to the heart of the question, “Just how much does Aaron Rodgers mean to the Packers?” can be an abstract exercise that leads to the non-specific answer “a lot.”

Las Vegas can give us a more tangible measure of just what Rodgers means to Green Bay by illustrating the difference in betting lines with and without the star QB in the lineup. The answer is still “a lot,” but we can assign a point value to Rodgers.

Per a tweet from Andrew Brandt, he was told that Rodgers is worth at least a touchdown and a field goal when it comes to the point spread.

That means the Packers would still have been slight favorites to defeat the Vikings at Lambeau Field if Rodgers hadn’t been placed on injured reserve after Green Bay was eliminated from playoff contention.

As it is, Green Bay is currently listed as a 9-point underdog with Brett Hundley as a starter.

Not only is that a pretty big number for a home team. Thanks to Twitter follower Tim Snell, we have some historical data showing just how rare this is. From 1986-1992, the Vikings were favored at Green Bay in six out of seven games. And on Dec. 11, 1988, the spread was 10.5 points in favor of the Vikings — the most the Vikings have been favored by at Lambeau Field in the last three decades. Green Bay won that game 18-6. The last time the Vikings were favored at Lambeau Field was 2000, when Minnesota was favored by 3.5 points. The Vikings lost 26-20.

Overall, Minnesota is 3-4 at Lambeau Field in games when it was favored to win since 1986.

Green Bay, by the way, has been favored at Minnesota 14 times in the same span and is 7-7 in those games.

Being a favorite on the road guarantees nothing. Still, facing Hundley instead of Rodgers is a huge gift for the Vikings.

Also, note this anomaly: The Packers were favored by 3 points when they played at Minnesota earlier this season — a game the Vikings won, with Rodgers getting injured early on. And now the Vikings are favored at Green Bay.

The only other time both teams were road favorites in the same season was 1987. Green Bay played the Vikings in Minnesota in a game using replacement players during the strike year. The Packers were favored and won. Later in the year, with the regular rosters intact, the Vikings were favored in Green Bay. The Vikings lost.

Damian Lillard says hecklers shouted slurs at him after Timberwolves game

Damian Lillard told ESPN that two hecklers outside Target Center shouted what ESPN termed “anti-gay slurs” at the Portland guard as he was heading to the team bus after the Timberwolves’ 108-107 victory over Portland on Monday.

Cell phone videos showed Lillard very much under control but unhappy as he approached a group and asked “Which one of you all said that?”

He told ESPN of the incident, “I don’t bother nobody. They were straight disrespectful.”

On Twitter, Lillard said whomever uttered the slurs apologized, and then Lillard left. He didn’t say what the exact slurs were, adding on Twitter that whomever said it was just looking for “attention.”

Here are the two videos on Twitter showing Lillard approaching fans outside Target Center.

The ESPN story said sources at the scene indicated no action was taken against the fans. A Timberwolves spokesman said the team would not be commenting on the incident.