Nobody provided the Timberwolves any help — not even themselves — leading up to what has become a rare NBA playoffs play-in game.
So now they will have do it themselves.
Front-runners much of the season to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004 — if not earn home-court advantage, too — the Wolves truly must win or go home on the season’s final night, when they play host to Denver on Wednesday in a winner-take-all finale.
The Wolves had their chances to finish as high as the third seed, but Jimmy Butler’s knee injury in late February and inexplicable losses to Orlando, Atlanta, Brooklyn and Chicago as well as Memphis and Phoenix twice each ended that.
Fewer than three weeks ago, they appeared still aimed firmly at the playoffs, but then Denver won its past six games; Utah won five games in a row; New Orleans won four, including a game at Golden State; and third-seeded Portland lost four consecutive games, including two to teams (San Antonio and Denver) with whom the Wolves were jockeying for playoff spots.
It didn’t help any that Oklahoma City won three of four, including a victory Saturday that ended mighty Houston’s 20-game home win streak.
All of it is something of a perfect storm that has left the Wolves, even with their 46-35 record, needing to win one more game to validate this season.
Young Wolves star Andrew Wiggins called it the “biggest game of my basketball career, on any level.” Asked Tuesday whether he would consider the season a failure if his team doesn’t advance, he said: “Basically. [Then] everything we did was for nothing.”
Two seasons ago, 46 victories would have earned the Wolves the West’s fifth seed. Last season, it would have made them seventh.
Tough row to hoe
Forgive the Wolves — the West’s most improved team this season by 15 victories, so far — if they feel conspired against.
“No one wants us to be in the playoffs, that’s just a given,” All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “The universe seems to not want us to be in the playoffs. Nothing has ever come easy for Minnesota. It’s only right that it comes down to one game and it means the most to us and to this franchise. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be fun, and if it was easy, it wouldn’t be the Minnesota way.
“We’ve got to go out there and get things done the hard way.”
Six days after the host Nuggets beat the Wolves without either Jimmy Butler or Denver guard Gary Harris on the floor, the two teams play again for a final time with each man back, with everything on the line. However unlikely, both the Wolves and Nuggets still could finish as high as a sixth seed, but the loser goes home any which way.
The Nuggets scored 134 points to beat the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday, then, in another must-win game Monday, held Portland to only 82 after Denver trailed by 11 points in the third quarter.
“We can’t come up for air, we can’t celebrate,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone told reporters after Monday night’s game. “The season’s not over. We have one heck of a challenge coming up against a team we just beat here.”
Wolves veteran guard Jamal Crawford has played 18 NBA seasons and 69 playoff games, but he has never played in a game like this.
According to Stats LLC, this is the sixth time in NBA history — the first since Washington beat Cleveland in 1997 — that two teams have played each other in a season finale to reach the playoffs.
“I’ve played in five Game 7s, but I’ve never played in a win-and-in,” Crawford said. “We can control our own destiny. If you would have told us at the beginning of the season that we have a game to win to get into the playoffs at home, sign me up.”
A playoff game before the playoffs begin Saturday, Wednesday is the reason Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves coach and president of basketball operations, traded for Butler last summer and signed Crawford, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose to play alongside Towns and Wiggins.
“To help with the young guys, so they can share with them the things they’ve gone through,” Thibodeau said. “You’ve got to go out there and earn it. That’s what we’re looking forward to.”
Thibodeau was an assistant coach in New York during the 1998-99 lockout when the Knicks beat Boston and Miami to reach the playoffs as an eighth seed on their way to the NBA Finals that season. Rose and Gibson played on a 2009-10 Chicago team that won its last three games to end the regular season and make the playoffs.
“I’ve been on a team where we had to win Game 82 the same way,” Rose said. “I’ve been there.”
After Monday’s victory over Memphis, Gibson said he stopped watching the nightly scores, including Denver’s comeback victory that night over Portland that kept the Wolves from clinching.
“The last couple days, we’ve been hoping somebody could help us out, any kind of team could help us and none of it’s happened,” said Gibson, who played only eight minutes Monday because of a sore neck and practiced a little Tuesday. “So I’m not relying on anybody right now, just focused on what we’ve got to do. If we’ve got to get the job done ourselves, we’ve got to be ready.”