MINNEAPOLIS — The locker room wasn’t filled with grim expressions, nor was their coach wearing a look of utter disappointment. The Celtics know full well that they aren’t at full strength — and that they were even further from it Monday night against Minnesota.
Paul Pierce sat out because of “personal reasons,” leaving the Celtics, already without Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo, without much of a chance, even against a team that sat 20 games below .500.
The Celtics knew this inescapable truth going in and especially by night’s end, when Minnesota belted Boston, 110-100, at the Target Center.
“I go into every game, I think we’re going to win the game,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought we had our chances tonight.”
But, Rivers added, he gets it: It’s almost unfair to expect so much from a team that is down to so little. It would be unrealistic to argue otherwise — pointless, even.
“I just want us to play the right way and do things our way,” Rivers said.
Rivers said Pierce will play Wednesday night against Detroit. But until Garnett returns from a sore left ankle, the Celtics, who have lost two straight and seven of nine, will have issues stopping anyone from plowing through the middle and scoring at will, which Minnesota did all night.
The hulking 6-foot-11-inch, 281-pound Nikola Pekovic devoured Boston down low, piling up a game-high 29 points on 9-of-15 shooting from the floor.
“We had no one that could deal with that big monster they had down there,” Rivers said.
The muscle-heavy Pekovic scored 15 points in the first quarter and 21 in the first half, bruising his way toward the basket with little interference.
Shavlik Randolph and Chris Wilcox racked up fouls but couldn’t slow Pekovic, who made all 11 of his free throws.
Yet again the Celtics were crushed in the points-in-the-paint category, where the Timberwolves scored 62 points and the Celtics had 38. But it’s not as though the Celtics can just fill the defensive void that Garnett has left; his presence is irreplaceable.
“KG is our defensive anchor back there,” guard Courtney Lee said. “He sees everything. Myself and Avery [Bradley] are going to pressure the ball and then you’ve got KG back there to protect you if you get beat. We’re missing him right there.”
The Celtics did limit Pekovic after the first half, but the rest of the Timberwolves stepped up. Andrei Kirilenko had 17 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists. Dante Cunningham scored 19 off the bench.
The Celtics cut Minnesota’s lead to 6 after a Jason Terry mid-range jumper with 1:00 left in the third quarter. But the Timberwolves opened up the fourth with a 12-4 run and never looked back, leading by as much as 14 as Minnesota snapped an 11-game losing streak against Boston and beat the Celtics for the first time since Garnett was traded there in 2007.
With Milwaukee’s win over Charlotte, the Bucks ended the night 1½ games behind the Celtics for the seventh playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. If the Celtics fall to the eighth seed, they would have to play Miami in the first round.
There are still eight regular-season games left for the Celtics, though. Their playoff position is not set in stone, even if the loss Monday night seemed to be long before tipoff.
Bradley scored 19 points to lead Boston and snap out of a personal slump that spanned most of March, but few other Celtics provided much of a punch. Jeff Green was coming off consecutive 27-point performances but scored just 10.
Boston’s bench had three double-digit scorers, with 14 points each from Jason Terry and Terrence Williams and 11 from Jordan Crawford.
“With Paul, he’s our go-to guy on the offensive end,” Lee said. “We run a lot of sets through him. He does a good job of scoring and making plays for others also. We definitely missed him also.”
The problems haven’t been on offense for Boston; it’s been on defense. Monday night was the seventh time in nine games that the Celtics have allowed 100 points or more.
“We just know that defensively is the way we’re going to win games,” Terry said.
“And the way we’ve performed defensively, regardless of who is in uniform, hasn’t been up to standard. It will be tough.”
The Celtics also had 17 turnovers that Minnesota turned into 22 points.
“I thought we tried to do too much at times with the ball,” Rivers said. “But because there are so many different ball handlers, I understand that as well, so I have compassion.”
Compassion. Rivers and the Celtics know the goal now is to be rested and healthy as the playoffs approach. In the meantime, they’ll keep limping toward the postseason, trying to iron out issues that could hinder another playoff run, trying to eek out wins some how, some way.