Life without Mike Conley is awfully difficult for Timberwolves, who may have to save their season without their point guard

DENVER — The Timberwolves may have been doomed for Game 5 on Tuesday 45 minutes before it even started. That’s when the team officially ruled out veteran starting point guard Mike Conley for the night due to Achilles’ tendon soreness. The injury has since been updated to a soleus (calf) strain.

The Timberwolves are a deep team with multiple quality options backing up the starters at numerous positions — except point guard.

That’s not a knock on Jordan McLaughlin or Monte Morris. But even at 36 years old, Conley is one of the NBA’s premier floor generals. He can direct traffic and get Minnesota into its necessary actions while also generating quality shots for himself and others with the ball in his hands.

He is the requisite secondary playmaker the Timberwolves need in the lineup alongside Anthony Edwards. He is also a 44 percent shooter from deep this season, giving the Timberwolves the outside shooting they desperately need to achieve proper spacing.

And, perhaps most importantly, when things get dicey, Conley is Minnesota’s steadying hand. That much was evident in Tuesday’s Game 5 loss in Denver.

“His shooting ability, him attacking Jokic,” Edwards said, talking about what they missed after the game. “He was definitely missed a lot tonight.”

The offense simply never found its footing in defeat. There was no one to orchestrate easy touches for Edwards, as the Nuggets did everything in their power to get the ball out of the all-star guard’s hands. There was no one to make the Nuggets pay for committing so many resources to Edwards, either with his ability to play off the catch or run a second-side pick-and-roll with center Rudy Gobert.

Conley had six or more assists in each of the first four games of this Western Conference semifinal series. He had 15 points and nine assists in Game 4, when he injured his calf on a jumper with 25 seconds to play. That followed up his 14-point, 10-assist showing in Game 1.

“When the ball comes to him, he attacks the closeout, gets into the heart of the defense and makes the next play,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “He gives Ant a breather from having the ball in his hands the whole time. Ant can play in space off of him, too. They’ve been a great combination all year.”

The Timberwolves managed to go 3-3 during the regular season in the six games Conley did not play.

But two of those wins came against cellar dwellers in Washington and a severely depleted Toronto. And two of the losses were against San Antonio and Charlotte.

To compete consistently at a high level, the Timberwolves need their point guard. There’s an argument to be made that Conley is the team’s second-least replaceable player behind Edwards.

Which is why it was so unfortunate for the Timberwolves that Conley was unable to play in Game 5. It’s the second straight time an injury has sidelined Conley in the midst of a playoff run with a true championship contender. A hamstring injury robbed him of the majority of Utah’s conference semifinal series against the Los Angeles Clippers in 2021. Conley returned in Game 6 of that series, but played at significantly less than 100 percent as the Jazz were eliminated from the playoffs.

The worst-case scenario for the Timberwolves is that a similar situation plays out Thursday. Finch said the team is “hopeful” Conley can play in Game 6 — the Timberwolves’ first elimination game of the playoffs.

“That was one of the reasons to be cautious with him right here, didn’t feel like he could go. But maybe in a couple of more days, he could go,” Finch said. “Nickeil (Alexander-Walker) did a great job of filling in there in the starting role. It would have been great to have Mike out there and Nickeil off the bench, but we didn’t have that.”

And it’s a realistic possibility they won’t have it again with their season on the line Thursday. Conley is listed as questionable for Game 6 with the calf strain, an injury that usually keeps players out longer than four days.

If that’s the case, the Timberwolves will simply have to find a way to survive without their floor general, a task that has proven awfully difficult to achieve this season.

“Leader of our team. Has the most experience. Been in these situations more than all of us. It hurts,” Timberwolves forward Karl-Anthony Towns said. “But we’ve always had a next-man-up mentality in this team, and even when I got hurt or people missed games, Ant missed games, we’ve always had a next-man-up mentality and we’ve been great at being ready for the opportunity.

“Keill (Alexander-Walker) has been amazing all year. He’s more than ready for the opportunity. Did a great job of defending and hitting shots, executing our offense. We all together have to execute better, and that doesn’t fall anywhere on Keil. As a team, we win as a team, lose as a team. Doesn’t matter about the stats. It’s about putting one in the left (win) column. We haven’t done that in the last three games. We got to find a way in Game 6 to do that.”

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