Nets guard Cam Thomas reacts late in the fourth quarter...

Nets guard Cam Thomas reacts late in the fourth quarter of an NBA game against the Timberwolves at Barclays Center on Thursday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Just under two hours before tipoff Thursday, the Nets got a pregame assist from Ben Simmons without his ever touching the ball.

Simmons, who’s been out since Nov. 6 with a nerve impingement in his back, could return to action next week, coach Jacque Vaughn said. Simmons will practice on Long Island on Saturday and his status will be determined after that.

The good news was dulled by the Nets’ 96-94 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves at Barclays Center. Instead of another fourth-quarter collapse, the Nets had a fourth-quarter rally fall short this time.

The Timberwolves led by 17 in the third quarter and 12 in the fourth, but Cam Thomas tied the score at 94 with a pair of free throws with 1:11 left. Rudy Gobert’s alley-oop dunk off a pass from Karl-Anthony Towns gave the Timberwolves the lead with 58.1 seconds left.

With the Nets down two and 2.4 seconds left, Mikal Bridges missed the first of two free throws.

He intentionally missed the second, but the Nets (17-27) committed a lane violation, giving the Timberwolves the ball. Anthony Edwards then dribbled out the clock.

“Thought it was good, hit back rim, surprised the ball came back to me,” Bridges said of the first miss. “Tried to miss the second one . . . get the ball and try to score again real quick. It’s tough after you miss the first half.’’

Bridges had nine of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. Towns had 10 points and seven rebounds in the fourth and finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds.

The Nets held the Timberwolves (32-13), who entered tied for the best record in the Western Conference, to 36 second-half points.

But it didn’t change the fact that they were outscored 36-17 in the second quarter. It was their seventh loss in eight games, 12th in 14 games and 17th in 21 games.

The Nets posted their second-lowest scoring total of the season against the NBA’s No. 1-ranked defense.

Thomas led the Nets with 25 points off the bench and had six rebounds but added five turnovers. Edwards had 24 points for Minnesota.

Vaughn called a timeout 1:02 into the fourth quarter after consecutive baskets by Towns made it 86-74.

The lead eventually was cut to two with 3:10 left after a three-point play and layup by Bridges.

“I go away giving our guys a tremendous amount of credit,” Vaughn said. “This is the No. 2 team in the West. No. 1 defense in the league, and for us to show the grit and the resolve to be in a game again at the end, make some adjustments at halftime and really stick together and fight and try to get a W, unbelievable effort by a lot of guys tonight.”

But the effort wasn’t enough. Perhaps that’s where the return of Simmons comes in.

He’ll add another wing defender and help the Nets push the tempo on offense. His passing will help the Nets get easier shots, especially Thomas and Spencer Dinwiddie.

He won’t fix their issues, especially with his lack of scoring. But the Nets could use a lift even after one of their better games in January ended in defeat.

“No moral victories,” said Nic Claxton, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds. “Another tough loss. It’s tough losing all these games, but we got to stay positive, stay together.”

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