MILWAUKEE – With 17 games left and ticking, please forgive the Timberwolves if they feel like every victory now is one step forward and every loss is two steps back.
There is a reason for that.
"Yeah," Wolves veteran point guard Ricky Rubio said, "it's true."
The Wolves' victories over the Clippers and Warriors last week drew them within 2 ½ games of Denver for the Western Conference's eighth and final playoff spot.
Saturday's 102-95 loss dropped them 3½ games behind after the Nuggets won at Sacramento that night. Not only that, but the Wolves must climb over Dallas and Portland to get to the Nuggets.
After Monday's home game against Washington, the Wolves play 11 of their final 16 games on the road and as the season counts down, each loss will feel more damaging than even Saturday's did. The Wolves trailed 95-93 with 2:49 left but allowed the next seven points unanswered and didn't score again until fewer than four seconds remained.
Karl-Anthony Towns' 35-point, 14-rebound night was the Wolves' franchise-best 20th consecutive game with at least 20 points, one more than teammate Andrew Wiggins' 19-gamer that ended just a week before at San Antonio. Milwaukee's long-armed forward and first-time All-Star starter Giannis Antetokounmpo and double teams limited Wiggins to 11 points on a 3-for-11 shooting night.
Down the stretch, the Wolves missed three-pointers, jumpers, a running floater, layups and tip-ins and had two shots blocked by Antetokounmpo on the second night of back-to-back games. The Bucks were on a back-to-back as well, but both were home games.
"It just really hurts," said Rubio, whose 22-point, eight-assist effort was his third 20-point game this season and fifth consecutive in double-digits scoring. "I know it's a back-to-back and however you want to say, but you've got to play with that edge that maybe we didn't find."
The Wolves are 11th in the West with that eighth spot fading but still in sight. By beating the Wolves on Saturday, the Bucks have won six consecutive games and they're a game ahead of Miami for the East's final playoff spot as they embark on a six-game Western trip.
Both teams teeter between reaching for the playoffs and presumably a short first-round series against Cleveland in the East and Golden State or San Antonio in the West or collecting yet another lottery pick — perhaps even a top-three one despite the long odds — in what's considered one of the deepest drafts in years.
Bucks coach Jason Kidd said Saturday there's no question of the Wolves' and Bucks' priorities.
"You've got to play for now, you've got to play for today," Kidd said. "That's the only way you can do. You can't control the lottery balls. You've got to play for today and you have to learn today how to compete and how to win. You never know what the future holds. You have to go out there to compete and try to win."
In one breath, Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said it's his and his players' business to know exactly where they're positioned in the playoff race. In the next, he said he doesn't want them thinking about such things.
"The big thing for us is not to get lost," Thibodeau said. "The easy thing is to start looking down the road at all the other things. I just want guys focused on improvement each and every day. Take care of the little things, and the big things take of themselves. Wherever we end up, we end up."
With every loss, though, it becomes more obvious which side of the playoff/lotto line a Wolves team with a tough schedule is headed.
"We can't really afford to lose, but we've been playing pretty good basketball," Wiggins said after Saturday's game. "The last two were some big wins. This loss is unfortunate, but we have to keep it going and move on to our next game."