The Minnesota Timberwolves are an NBA playoff team.
For just about every team in the league, this is the goal, but not an overwhelmingly major accomplishment. To become a true championship contender — the real goal — is a difficult task, especially in a top-heavy league like the one we have this season.
But for a team that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2004, this is a big deal.
While some title contenders of then and now might scoff at the notion, Wednesday’s overtime win over the Denver Nuggets was the biggest moment this franchise has had since Kevin Garnett was an MVP 14 years ago.
There have been highlights since then, but nothing quite like this. Some of those highlights were the moves made in the 2017 offseason, and questions immediately started to swirl about what this team could do down the stretch.
Even with the acquisition of multi-year All-Star Jimmy Butler and an expensive supporting cast of acquisitions, and even the rise of first-time All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns, nothing post-April 11 ever felt certain.
It became clear early on that the Timberwolves were not a true title contender, but it was also clear that they belonged in the NBA playoffs.
But with a 13-year playoff drought hanging over the team’s — and the state’s — collective head, a late-season injury to Jimmy Butler and an ultra-competitive Western Conference, missing the playoffs remained heavily in question.
The fact that the final game of the regular season turned out to be a play-in game for the final playoff spot seemed too bizarre to be true.
The game went as it was billed — both teams played as closely on the scoreboard as they are close in top-to-bottom talent. The fact that it went to overtime was even more fitting.
But the Timberwolves pulled through, beating all the odds built up against them both historically any more recently.
And the fact that the 112-106 victory came down to defense, after all the struggles they’ve had on that end this season, is a good way to enter the postseason.
“I just told them they earned it,” a smiling Tom Thibodeau said after the game. “I give Denver a lot of credit, they fought like crazy all year to put themselves in that position. They played great basketball. It was a tough win, but a good win.”
The Nuggets came into the game off six straight wins; they beat some impressive teams in that process, including Oklahoma City and Portland.
Meanwhile, the Timberwolves had just gotten Butler back, but hadn’t picked up a win over a team with a winning record since their home win over Los Angeles on March 20.
But even with the small sample, the Timberwolves looked like a different with Butler back, and it gave the Wolves and their fans hope.
“I just love to play the game of basketball,” Butler said after the win. “Especially with these guys, who we have in this locker room. Their hearts are pure.”
The game was billed as an evenly matched contest, and it felt like it immediately. The Wolves led for the majority of the game, but the Nuggets never let the lead grow past 10 points. The lead would change eight times, and the Wolves never trailed by more than five.
And whenever either team would build any sort of a lead, the other team would immediately strike back. For every Towns dunk, there was a Nikola Jokic fadeaway jumper. For every Butler bucket, Jamal Murray would match. For every Taj Gibson hustle play, there was Will Barton trying to do the same.
“You know it was two teams that were really fighting for something,” Thibodeau said. “Both teams wanted it very badly.”
Down the stretch in the fourth quarter is when the game became the closest and most intense. With the game tied with just over 30 seconds to go, Butler dribbled the shot clock all the way to one before heaving up a fadeaway shot in the corner.
Had it gone in, his hero status would have elevated even further. But it didn’t go in — so with 4.4 seconds left, the Nuggets had a chance to ruin the Wolves’ season.
Of course, they went to Jokic, who already had 35 points and had already hit a number of big shots.
But that’s when another one of Thibodeau’s key acquisitions stepped up and made the type of play he was brought in to make.
Gibson played quality defense all season, but this will be the play fans remember him for from this year’s campaign. But to him, it was just another play, orchestrated and made possible through a game’s worth of effort.
“I was just charging them up the whole game, trying to make it hard on them to make some tough shots,” Gibson said. “I was going to stay on his body, try to use my quickness, and I was able to get a strip.”
That play seemed to provide a spark in overtime, and his resilience inspired his teammates. Gibson played through a neck strain he suffered last week in their win over the Lakers. He was technically a gametime decision on Wednesday night.
When watching him play on Thursday, his teammates didn’t notice a difference.
“At first Taj was getting cooked,” Butler joked about his long-time teammate. “Jokic was hitting him right in between the eyes with trey balls from top of the key. It was crazy. But, when push came to shove, Taj locked up. In the corner got a huge block/steal and got us into overtime.”
Gibson’s frontcourt mate felt the same way. When answering a question about the defense down the stretch, Towns had to start his answer off in a specific way.
“First of all, we have to talk about the brilliance that was Taj Gibson,” Towns said. “Taj was absolutely brilliant for all the game.”
The play sparked team-wide defense in overtime in a way not seen from this Wolves team in months. The high-octane Nuggets offense didn’t score in the final two minutes and change of the overtime period, and Jokic was held scoreless throughout the final five minutes.
To add to the list of uncharacteristically-exciting developments, the game was put away by a pair of made free throws by Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins is shooting just under 64 percent from the line this year, and had developed a reputation for bricking shots in clutch situations, despite his always-calm demeanor.
In this case, he hit them.
“I was cool, I was confident,” Wiggins said. “I felt like I’m pretty good at making decisions and shots down the stretch when needed, so I went to the line confident.”
The Wolves would get another stop, hit two more free throws and go onto win the game, snapping a streak and making history.
Starting either Saturday or Sunday, Timberwolves will face the No. 1 seeded Houston Rockets in the first round. The Rockets swept the Timberwolves this season, each time by 18 points or more.
While the Wolves might celebrate some after this game, the Rockets won’t celebrate until they get past the Conference Finals. Perhaps even further. They have been considered title contenders for most of the season, and will be a tough matchup for the now-No. 8 seeded Wolves.
But for now, celebration in Minneapolis is warranted. This might not be a championship roster, but it is officially a playoff roster. After years of uncertainty, roster turnover and just plain losing, the Minnesota Timberwolves are finally a playoff team again.
That alone is worth getting excited about.
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