DENVER – On Thursday morning, Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau called that night’s crucial visit to Denver “go time” for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004.
The only place his Timberwolves went in a 100-96 loss to the Nuggets was on to Los Angeles for Friday’s game vs. the Lakers with the Wolves’ postseason chances never more in doubt.
The Wolves started the game with four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler active and technically available to play, but he did not for a 17th consecutive game. They finished it without big man Karl-Anthony Towns, who fouled out after a 26-point, 13-rebound night with 1:46 left and his team leading 93-92.
They also finished it tied with the Nuggets for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference at 44-35 with three games to play, including a rematch in the final game of the regular season on Wednesday at Target Center
Without Towns, the Wolves were outscored 8-3 the rest of the way, unable to get their hands on a rebound or a loose ball when they needed it most.
“That probably was the difference at the end of the day,” Towns said about the rebounding on a night when the teams were dead even at 47 each. “It’s frustrating to lose any game, especially down to the wire. Nothing we can do now. We can’t go back and change what happened. We can’t change the outcome. We have to head to L.A. and get ready for the Lakers.”
Afterward, Thibodeau said he wanted to watch the film and look at a fourth quarter in which the Wolves were called for eight personal fouls and the Nuggets two. Towns fouled out after Nuggets guard Jamal Murray lured him into a foul call.
“It stinks, man,” Wolves veteran point guard Jeff Teague said. “Some things didn’t go our way. The foul on KAT was a huge play.”
The Wolves built leads of eight points in both the second and third quarters, but veteran guard Devin Harris — who scored 20 points — and his Nuggets refused to go quietly in the night.
Both times they answered, the second time with an 18-4 burst that ended the third quarter and swiftly took the Nuggets from trailing 68-61 midway through the quarter into a 79-72 advantage by third quarter’s end.
Included in that were Harris’ three consecutive three-pointers in the third quarter’s final 1:25 that fueled both the Nuggets’ comeback and a big Pepsi Center crowd.
The Wolves responded by scoring seven of the fourth quarter’s first nine points and four times they pulled within a mere basket before Towns tied the score at 90 with 3:16 left and Nemanja Bjelica followed with a three-pointer for a 93-90 lead with 2:45 left.
But Murray lured Towns into his sixth and final foul of the night with 1:46 left, and Murray made both free throws for a 94-93 lead.
The Wolves started the night in seventh place — thanks to tiebreaker with New Orleans — in a Western Conference where eight teams make the playoffs.
The Nuggets were on the outside looking in, a game behind both the Wolves and the Pelicans. Now they’re tied for the eighth and final spot, but the Wolves hold the tiebreaker.
“I’ve never seen it in all my years in the league,” Denver coach Michael Malone said before the game. “This late in the year, four games, three games to go, this many teams still having a chance to be in the playoffs. It’s going to be a wild seven days, and I look forward to see how it all pans out.”
With three games now left in the regular season, the Wolves remain in a fight for their playoff lives.
“Everyone can see everyone’s fighting it out,” Thibodeau said. “You’re one game from fourth and one game from being out. Unusual, but it does happen. You have a bunch of teams, and it’s been going this way for a long time now. You have to fight it out.”
Teague returned to the starting lineup Thursday after he missed Sunday’s home loss to Utah because of a sore knee, but Butler didn’t.
Just don’t buy anything from Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who before Thursday’s game sounded certain Butler would play in a game with such playoff implications.
“He’s playing,” Malone said. “C’mon, man, he’s playing. I don’t care what the game notes say. Believe that if you want, I have a bridge to sell you. The guy’s playing. He knows what’s at stake. We’re preparing for all their guys to play.”