DENVER – In the three games leading to the Timberwolves' Game 5 loss to the Nuggets on Tuesday, the Wolves left some breadcrumbs to show their composure wasn't where it needed to be in a series against a defending champion.

As a result, the season is on the line as the Wolves trail the best-of-seven NBA Western Conference semifinal series 3-2 heading to Thursday night's game against Denver at Target Center.

The cracks started to show back in Game 2, one of the biggest triumphs of the season, when the Wolves were dominating the Nuggets and causing Jamal Murray and coach Michael Malone to lose their minds in the first half.

Jaden McDaniels picked up his fourth foul of the game early in the third quarter, and McDaniels was so frustrated he had to storm off through the tunnel and into the back hallway to cool off.

This happened in a game in which the Wolves were ahead by 29. McDaniels and the Wolves were playing well, yet his emotions were running over.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker had run into a few Nikola Jokic screens in Game 3 and ended up on the floor with his left shoulder in pain toward the end of a blowout. When he got up, he went after referee Tony Brothers in a rare outward display of anger for Alexander-Walker, who is normally one of the most levelheaded Wolves in discussions with officials.

Then in Game 4, Rudy Gobert couldn't resist making the money signal, again, after referee Scott Foster whistled him for an offensive foul. The history between the two is well documented, with Gobert picking up another $75,000 fine. Gobert could not just move on to the next play in a game that was still close.

With those signs, it should not have come as a surprise that on the road, with three-time MVP Nikola Jokic throwing in shot after shot, that the Wolves' body language appeared frazzled and eventually defeated during the second half of a 112-97 loss Tuesday night at Ball Arena.

The Wolves had done a better job in controlling their emotions this season, but the Nuggets are showing them there are levels to composure ... and in this series they are not on Denver's level when it comes to this important quality.

Denver's outbursts in Game 2 were an exception. For the Wolves, this is more of a trend that is continuing from last year. McDaniels, for instance, picked up fouls on consecutive plays in the third quarter and played himself to the bench with four fouls. Earlier in the night, the Wolves lost emotional control and their ability to execute on offense when they were called for three consecutive charges.

"They're going to go on runs. They're a great team. Sometimes we're going to make mistakes," Alexander-Walker said. "But as a team and as a unit, we just got to let go of those things. Mental toughness is not holding onto the past, good and bad."

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The Wolves held onto the past too much when they entered Game 3 with no energy. Now they have the same problem, only in reverse. Denver, and the officials, seem to be frustrating them. The Nuggets cleared their heads before Game 3; the Wolves are stuck in theirs.

And the league's MVP, Denver center Nikola Jokic, has his team confident with his increasingly dominant play at both ends of the court.

"I mean, we got to keep our head. I think that's the story for us," Gobert said. "... We have to be mentally tough, individually and collectively, to be able to keep playing our game and not let anything that happened in the game affect the way we play."

That is proving easier said than done for these Wolves to take down the defending champions.

The Wolves haven't responded in their first few moments of adversity this postseason. A team that never lost three consecutive games in the regular season has now lost three in a row and is on the verge of elimination. The team missed Mike Conley (sore right Achilles) on Tuesday, not just for his offensive playmaking and scoring ability, but because Conley keeps the emotional temperature of the team as even as he can. And that's not easy on a team that can soar past its boiling point in a hurry.

Coach Chris Finch said the team is hopeful Conley can return for Game 6, and getting him back would help the Wolves come back from what now feels like a daunting 3-2 series deficit.

"There's not much hanging your heads," Alexander-Walker said. "There's not much time to really dwell. Even in the game. It's a fast-paced game and the way that they were playing this evening was even faster."

That's one reason the Wolves can't be looking in the past, no matter how recent.