At a time of year when Timberwolves players typically have firm vacation plans while front office members have been feverishly preparing for the draft lottery, Minnesota finds itself in this position this season: in control of its own postseason destiny.
Of course, that phrase has two edges. It means that if the Timberwolves win their final two games, they are guaranteed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04. It also means that if they don’t, they could be left out again.
The reasons their playoff fate has not yet been determined are multiple. A late-season injury to Jimmy Butler led to an 8-9 stretch over 17 games. While the Wolves faded, many other Western Conference teams surged. Of course, winnable games that got away early in the season loom large now that things are so tight.
But the most immediate reason for doubt arrived this weekend. While the Wolves were idle Saturday and Sunday, there were four games Saturday that had a huge bearing on the Wolves’ chances. All four had the distinct possibility of going the Wolves’ way. Instead, all four worked against them.
First, Denver beat the Clippers to move back into a tie with Minnesota for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.
Then the top three teams in the West — Houston, Golden State and Portland — lost to Oklahoma City, New Orleans and San Antonio, respectively. All three of those winners moved a game ahead of the Wolves. Any of them that had lost would have been tied with Minnesota.
And so, in a season in which the Wolves have improved but also seldom managed to make that improvement look easy or pretty, they are fittingly in a position to have to do things the hard way.
There’s a chance Minnesota could clinch a playoff spot before Wednesday’s showdown at Target Center with the Nuggets. If the Wolves defeat pesky Memphis on Monday — a recent loss to the woeful Grizzlies is part of the reason things are as hard as they are now — and the Nuggets lose to Portland while the Spurs beat the Kings, the Wolves would clinch. (Here's tonight's NBA schedule, if you want to keep up with the action.)
Those are all reasonably likely outcomes, and there are other bits of help the Wolves could receive along the way that would help with potential seeding and qualifying for the playoffs.
But no team should ever expect help. And the way this season has gone, nobody should expect any help Monday. What very well could happen is a winner-take-all game Wednesday in the regular-season finale at Target Center between the Wolves and Nuggets.
The winner might earn nothing more than the right to get blown out by the Rockets in the first round, but it’s a start. The Wolves are playing meaningful games in April, and fans are being reminded how tense games like this really are.
It’s not as good as it could have been, but it beats the alternative. Maybe that should be the tagline for the entire 2017-18 Timberwolves season?