Wolves' latest heartbreaking loss to Nuggets may have crushed any slim playoff hopes during tumultuous season
MINNEAPOLIS — The game didn’t have the same stakes as Game No. 82 a year ago, when the same two teams battled on the same floor to virtually the same score.
But with 14.5 seconds left, and the Denver Nuggets leading the Minnesota Timberwolves, 107-106, Saturday night as the Timberwolves were about to inbound the ball, it was pretty close to a feeling of desperation for the Timberwolves. A win here against the top team in the West would bring the Wolves up to .500. That would be one step closer to a shot at the playoffs in this drama-filled season.
It had been a back-and-forth, tit-for-tat fourth quarter filled with hard, physical defense. Refs were mostly letting them play. A crushing Will Barton 3-pointer with two minutes left was answered by a 3 by Jerryd Bayless 17 seconds later to keep the Wolves within a point. Then came an asleep-on-the-job moment for the Wolves with a minute left: Nuggets All-Star center Nikola Jokic lobbed a full-court pass over the top to Malik Beasley, who laid it in as Andrew Wiggins was a couple steps behind. Luol Deng brought down the crowd with a dunk, and then the Wolves came at the Nuggets with one of their finest defensive possessions of the year, with Deng hounding Barton, the Wolves smothering the Nuggets’ sure-handed point guard Monte Morris into a turnover near mid-court, which led to the Wolves huddled at their bench with 14.5 seconds left and something along the lines of a realistic shot at the playoffs hanging in the balance.
Interim head coach Ryan Saunders drew up the play, and the team felt like it was a good one. Dario Saric would slip out, and Bayless — filling in as starting point guard for the injured Tyus Jones and Jeff Teague — would come off his screen. Then Karl-Anthony Towns would act as if he’s going into another pick-and-roll, then back off it. Bayless would either charge at the rim, or Towns would be freed up at the rim because Mason Plumlee would have to step out in coverage.
“We didn’t get it,” Saunders said afterwards, “They played it well.”
What they got instead was a Deng corner 3. It clanged high off the rim, and the buzzer sounded as Towns chased down the rebound.
“We put ourselves in a position where everything had to go right, and everything didn’t go right,” Towns said from the Wolves locker room.
To say there was a note of finality to the loss — that it marked an end to the Timberwolves’ playoff chances — would be a massive exaggeration. After all, there was a whole symphony of finality surrounding the Utah Jazz last season when they were 19-28 on Jan. 22, five games out of the playoff race. Then the Jazz finished the season 29-6 and ended up winning a first-round playoff series. Just like basketball is a game of runs, the NBA is a league of runs. Momentum can be infectious. You never quite know when a team is going to get hot.
Yet here’s the reality of the Wolves’ situation now: A win would have brought them to .500 in the bunched-up West. And a win was eminently available on Saturday night. Not only were two of the Nuggets starters out with an injury — Jamal Murray was out with an ankle injury, Gary Harris was out with a groin injury — but the Nuggets were dog-tired. They’d beaten the Houston Rockets at home the night before, and they had gotten in at their Minneapolis hotel at 4 a.m. on Saturday. In his pregame media scrum, head coach Mike Malone looked exhausted. Even though the Nuggets are an incredible 8-1 this season on the second night of a back-to-back, this still felt like a game the Wolves should have won. In a season that’s been filled to the hilt with drama — the Jimmy Butler trade demand, the firing of head coach Tom Thibodeau — this team needed this win. Bad.
But a loss brought the Wolves record down to 25-27. They’re in 11th place in the West, 3.5 games out of the eighth spot. But that understates the Wolves’ shot at the playoffs. The Wolves have the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, per tankathon.com. Their chance at making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, dipped down to 18 percent. A team likely needs around 45 wins for a playoff slot in the West. That means the Wolves will have to go 20-10 the rest of the way.
“One or two possessions — it’s the NBA, it’s tough,” lamented Taj Gibson in the locker room. “Really felt like we had that one. This loss tonight, it’s tough. You’re going as hard as you can, but sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way. That team just came off a hard back-to-back against Houston. It just sucks. I feel like we had a chance to get a good one tonight.”
They did. They’ve had chances to get a lot of good ones at home this season that they just missed. If they do miss the playoffs, this will be one home game they’ll look back at as a huge missed opportunity. But it’s only one of many over the past couple months. There was the overtime loss to the Detroit Pistons just before Christmas, and the overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks just after Christmas. There was the Jan. 11 loss to the Dallas Mavericks when Luka Doncic turned superhero late, and there was the 3-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs a week later. Any single one of those losses could make the difference between a playoff appearance and a lottery appearance. But put together, all these recent close home losses could put the Wolves out of the playoff race entirely by April 1.