In Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau’s world, you always take one game at a time.
So somebody take Thursday’s 117-109 home loss to Boston.
In the midst of a stretch that could go far toward determining their playoff fate, the Wolves on Thursday lost a third consecutive game for the first time all season.
The Wolves followed losses at Portland and Utah last week with a game in which they were outmuscled and outplayed even after a rare five-day rest in the schedule.
They committed too many fouls (22) and too many first-half turnovers (10 of their 12); allowed too many free throws (27) and fast-break points (Boston’s 14 to their two); and their bench was outscored 42-20 by the Celtics’.
Ultimately, they also gave up too many points after the Celtics shot 60 percent in the fourth quarter and 49.4 percent for the game in front of a sellout crowd (18,978) announced as the season’s 12th at Target Center.
A starter at small forward now that Jimmy Butler remains out injured, Nemanja Bjelica had a career-high 30 points, six three-pointers and 12 rebounds, but even that wasn’t enough.
“One-hundred nine points, that’s enough to win,” said Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau, who called Bjelica’s play terrific. “It’s our defense.”
The Wolves didn’t match Boston’s physical play in their first game of a stretch that follows with Golden State at home on Sunday, at Washington and San Antonio next week and Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers back home after that.
The Wolves are in a three-way tie for fifth place in the Western Conference with the Spurs and Oklahoma City, two games ahead of another three-way tie for eighth (the final playoff spot) that includes the Clippers, Denver and Utah.
“We have to understand how hard and physical you have to play,” Thibodeau said. “That’s the difference right now in us being a really good team and a good team. I looked at them and the physicality with which they play, it’s the difference. We can score. We score plenty. It’s the defense. Until we get figured out, it’s going to be tough.”
The Wolves never led by more than four — and never after midway through the first quarter — and trailed by as many as 18 in the third.
“The NBA is body-on-body,” Thibodeau said. “This isn’t college. When you cut, someone’s hitting you, and it’s never-ending. Until we understand that’s what’s separating us right now, we can’t pick and choose when we do it. We have great energy on offense, and we’ve got to get out the habit of resting on defense.”
The closest the Wolves came when it mattered was 88-83 with nine minutes left, but the Celtics scored the next five points — a Greg Monroe dunk and a Terry Rozier three-pointer — and the Wolves never came closer than seven again.
“A lot of things and it was all hustle,” Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said when asked what more his team needed to do. “We didn’t play as hard as we needed to.”
“Just keep trying to play hard,” veteran forward Taj Gibson said about the road forth these next two weeks. “We’re getting the league’s best right now. We’re playing against very special teams. Each team we’re playing is at the top of the league. It’s good for us. At the same time, we have to do a lot better.”
Gibson (18 points) and Bjelica combined to shoot 19-for-26 from the floor, but the rest of the team went 25-for-68 (36.8 percent).
The Wolves had lost consecutive games nine times this season, but never three in a row.
“You regroup,” guard Jamal Crawford said. “Obviously, we’ve been a resilient group not to lose three [in a row] until this point. We’ll get back on our horse and figure it out.”