In their quest to reach the postseason for the first time since 2003-04 season, the Timberwolves are taking things right down to the wire.
They entered Monday with a chance to clinch a playoff berth, but that didn’t happen because Denver defeated Portland. After defeating Memphis on Monday, the Wolves could still finish anywhere from fifth in the West to ninth — the former setting up a winnable playoff series, the latter pushing them all the way out of the playoffs.
The scenarios are a little simpler now that almost every contending team is down to one game left. We for sure know this: Making or missing the playoffs all comes down to Minnesota’s game Wednesday at Target Center against the Nuggets (which, by the way, is the same night the Wild opens the playoffs in Winnipeg. Talk about a high-stress evening).
If the Wolves win Wednesday …
They are guaranteed to make the playoffs as at least the No. 8 seed. That seed, of course, is not at all preferred because it would set up a first-round playoff matchup against the Rockets — against whom the Wolves are 0-4 this season.
The Wolves could ascend as high as the No. 5 seed. Here’s how that could happen in the event of a Wolves win over the Nuggets:
*The Jazz lose twice to finish the year. They have to play the Warriors tonight and the Blazers on Wednesday, two tough opponents.
*Oklahoma City loses to Memphis on Wednesday.
*The Spurs play the Pelicans, and both are a game ahead of the Wolves right now. So one of those two teams will lose Wednesday.
If Minnesota gets into a four-way tie with the Jazz, OKC and either the Spurs or Pelicans, they will win that tiebreaker and finish fifth based on head-to-head winning percentage (in the the case of the Spurs being part of that four-team tiebreaker, the edge is very narrow for the Wolves but it is still there).
The Wolves also would win any three-team tiebreaker except one with the Spurs and Jazz, and they win every head-to-head tiebreaker except the one against the Spurs.
So if, say, Utah loses twice and the Spurs beat the Pelicans, the Wolves would win that tiebreaker and get the No. 6 seed.
If Utah wins at least one of these next two games and OKC takes care of business in a should-win game over Memphis, the Wolves would still get the No. 7 seed if the Spurs beat the Pelicans.
All of those scenarios are plausible, but that last one at least feels like a decent possibility. That would give the Wolves a matchup with Golden State — not great news, but the Warriors have been struggling lately and are expected to be without Steph Curry for the first round.
If the Wolves get no other help and New Orleans beats San Antonio, the Wolves will be the No. 8 seed.
If the Wolves lose to Denver …
They will miss the playoffs. Plain and simple. There were still some scenarios as of Monday that would have let the Wolves get in even with a loss Wednesday, but those evaporated when New Orleans beat the Clippers and the Thunder beat Miami.
Ideal scenario if you’re a Wolves fan: Minnesota beats Denver, Utah loses twice and OKC loses to Memphis. That would give the Wolves the No. 5 seed regardless of what happens in Spurs vs. Pelicans.
Pretty good scenario if you’re a Wolves fan: Minnesota beats Denver, Utah loses twice and the Spurs beat the Pelicans but the Thunder beats Memphis. That would give the Wolves the No. 6 seed.
At least it’s not Houston scenario: Wolves beat Denver, Spurs defeat the Pelicans, the Wolves get no other help. Minnesota gets the No. 7 seed.
At least they’re in scenario: Wolves win, nobody else helps, Minnesota gets the No. 8 seed.
Nightmare scenario: The Wolves lose and they’re out. (The No. 8 seed in the West, by the way, finished 41-41 each of the last two seasons. This year, a team that finishes 46-36 is going to miss the playoffs).
In addition to Wolves wins, you should be rooting for …
Tuesday: Utah to lose at home to Golden State. The Warriors don’t have much to play for, but they also would probably like to pull out of their tailspin in their final regular-season tuneup.
Wednesday: Spurs to defeat New Orleans (Wolves went 4-0 against the Pelicans this year, so every tiebreaker involving New Orleans favors the Wolves), Memphis to win at Oklahoma City and Utah to lose at Portland in a game with playoff seeding implications.
Wolves/Nuggets history: The Wolves are 2-1 against Denver this year.
Minnesota had a big 112-104 win at Denver on Dec. 20, with Jamal Crawford scoring 20 points off the bench while Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler each had 25 efficient points. The Wolves trailed 84-80 at the start of the fourth quarter but outscored Denver 32-20 in the final frame.
A week later, the Wolves won an epic 128-125 overtime game over Denver at Target Center. Butler scored 12 points in overtime and 39 for the game, playing 42 minutes in the process.
Most recently, Denver knocked off the Wolves 100-96 this past Thursday in Denver in the last game Butler sat out before returning from injury. The Wolves led 93-90 late, but Towns fouled out and the Nuggets took over in the final two minutes.
All three games have been close, with Butler’s play — or absence — telling much of the story. Butler has played 22 minutes in each game since returning — both lopsided Wolves wins. How much he has to offer on Wednesday will largely determine whether this Wolves playoff drought ends or continues.