In most seasons this game might have been decided before the tip.
The closing days of the regular season. One team competing for a lottery pick, the other for seeding in the upcoming NBA playoffs.
But this isn't normal. Since Chris Finch took over as Timberwolves coach the idea has been to compete to win rather than for lottery position. So Thursday's game with Denver — a team that entered the night seeded fourth in the Western Conference, a game behind third-seeded L.A. Clippers — was entertaining.
"Listen, we should fight,'' Finch said. "That's one thing we've been instilling in our guys since we got here. Up the level of competitiveness.''
Thursday at Target Center the Wolves lost 114-103. But it wasn't from a lack of trying. It had more to do with Denver's sizable lineup and the Wolves' inability to finish a game still in reach when the fourth quarter began.
"They just went big,'' Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said. "They had the size advantage. It hurt us throughout the game.''
More so at the beginning, as the Nuggets — led by MVP candidate Nikola Jokic with 31 points, 14 rebounds — swarmed the boards while building a nine-point lead after a quarter.
The Nuggets scored 60 points in the paint. The Wolves managed to stop the bleeding in that area as the second half progressed. But, within three after three quarters thanks to Anthony Edwards, the Wolves shot 4-for-16 overall and made just one of 11 threes in the decisive fourth quarter.
Edwards, though, was remarkable. He scored 18 of his 29 points in the third as the Wolves pared a double-digit deficit to just three entering the fourth.
"I just felt it was go time,'' said the streaky Edwards whose scoring and assists accounted for 26 of the Wolves' 37 third-quarter points.
Ultimately, though, self-inflicted wounds hurt the Wolves. Consecutive turnovers to start the fourth allowed the Nuggets to cushion their lead and the Wolves — who missed 13 of 32 free throws — never caught up.
For all their effort, Edwards said the Wolves failed to lock in.
"We just couldn't hit anything,'' he said. "I think we missed a lot of free throws, too. We [weren't] locked in, if you ask me.''
There was talk that the Wolves — who won consecutive games against tanking teams Orlando and Detroit coming into Thursday — would use the three-game homestand against contenders Denver, Boston and Dallas as a measuring stick. Thursday's result, Towns said, was a reminder.
"Today was a learning experience,'' said Towns, who had 20 points and 11 rebounds.
D'Angelo Russell (17 points) and Naz Reid (10) also scored in double figures. A total of six Nuggets scored 12 or more points, including Markus Howard and Aaron Gordon (15 each).
"We made a lot of runs, we kept competing,'' Finch said. "but we didn't play particularly well.''
The Wolves were still within five with 8:19 left after Edwards made two free throws. The Wolves then got a stop. But Towns missed a three and Facundo Capazzo scored for Denver. After a Towns turnover, Howard hit a 27-foot three and the lead was back to 10. Out of a timeout, with 5:47 left, Jokic made a 16-footer, was fouled and hit the free throw and the lead was 13.
Now the Wolves have two more games to lock back in.
"It's on me, it's on us,'' Edwards said. "We've got to come out and show we want to win.''