The Minnesota Timberwolves have seven games to go in this strenuous regular season, coming tantalizingly close to the tormented franchise's first appearance in the playoffs in 14 years.
The trouble is their once-sturdy postseason bid is also teetering on the brink of being painfully denied.
Beginning a supposedly softer stretch of their schedule that has the potential to help propel them to the finish line, the Timberwolves took an egregious loss on Monday to a languishing Memphis team that had lost all 17 road games to date in 2018. The outcome only furthered the doubt among an embittered fan base about whether the Wolves can hang on long enough without All-Star shooting guard Jimmy Butler to finish in the top eight in the Western Conference.
"We have to keep pushing forward. For some guys, this is a new experience. This is about your will," coach Tom Thibodeau said after the 101-93 loss. "You can't approach it without knowing what you have to put into it."
The word Thibodeau kept using in his postgame lament was toughness, the intangible trait that the truly elite teams use to supplement their top-flight talent. That's what Butler has provided and then some in his first year with the Wolves, his reunion with Thibodeau after the two developed a strong working relationship in Chicago. Power forward Taj Gibson, another reclaimed asset from Thibodeau's time with the Bulls, has done the same. Point guard Jeff Teague, the other major offseason acquisition, has hit his stride lately and supplied plenty of his own grit.
That's the experienced portion of the team, along with sixth man Jamal Crawford. Young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, going through the rigors of a playoff race for the first time, haven't yet built up that resilience. The Grizzlies pushed around the Wolves with a playoff-style physical approach, and the home team didn't produce enough resistance.
"I like those kinds of games. It was on both ends. Both teams were playing physical, and they were letting us play," Teague said. "People just haven't been a part of those kinds of games, so it was an adjustment for some of us."
Teague didn't have to name names. Thibodeau didn't either, when he praised the tenacity by Gibson and Teague and left out the rest of the Butler-less starting lineup. Nemanja Bjelica, who has often taken his game to a higher level during extended action in Butler's absence, was scoreless with a minus-18 rating in 22 minutes against Memphis. Towns was overshadowed by Grizzlies center Marc Gasol. Wiggins was 7 for 17 from the floor, missing four of five attempts from 3-point range.
"I just think at times we just miss shots," Gibson said, downplaying the toughness factor. "It was a gritty game. It came down to the wire. We had good looks. It just didn't go the way we wanted it to. If you're playing in this league and you've got 40-some wins, you're a tough team. It's nothing about grit, nothing about physicality. It just comes down to misses and strong rebounds and knowing your coverages."
The Wolves (42-33) are in eighth place in the conference race, just as close to fourth as they are to ninth. They host Atlanta on Wednesday and play at Dallas on Friday before hosting seventh-place Utah on Sunday. Denver, one of the teams trying to bump Minnesota off, appears twice on the final four games of the schedule.
Perhaps Butler will join them. He did some light jogging and 3-point shooting on the court after practice on Tuesday, but Thibodeau declined to reveal a timetable for his return. Butler has not yet been cleared for contact, so the Wolves can't simply bank on his return.
"I believe we will get it done," Thibodeau said, "so I told them that today. We've just got to keep fighting."