As a scantly athletic but sufficiently coordinated 9 year old, I signed up to play my first season of competitive basketball. I certainly wasn’t one of the best players on the team, but at an age when everyone throws the ball like a two-handed shot put, I guess I could hold my own. We made the championship that year.
The game was in a dimly-lit, middle-school gym, but it may as well have been Madison Square Garden as far as we were concerned. With the season on the line, a flickering scoreboard depicted a tie ball-game with just seconds to play. Chaos ensued when every kid ran straight for the ball, which somehow wound up in my hands. As my teammates waved their arms in fits of desperation, ‘Not this guy!’ plastered across their foreheads, I turned and threw up a prayer. It went in. But the best part came next.
That very evening, as I basked in a newfound love of the game, my dad surprised me with tickets to game two of the 2004 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves. The game was the next night and the Wolves already trailed 0-1 in the series. But I was less than privy to the minutia; I was there to see my hero, Kevin Garnett, defeat two villains, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. We sat in the upper-deck and watched Garnett put up 24 points and 11 rebounds. The Wolves handled their business en route to the 89-71 victory. Ever since that sequence of events, I’ve been fanatical about this game and it was the excitement and anticipation surrounding a post-season match-up that hooked me on the Wolves. That was one of the last home playoff games this franchise has enjoyed, as we all know.
Over the ensuing 14 years, loyal followers have been dragged along like the limb of a tree in a river’s current. Their emotions tossed uncontrollably through some seasons—like Ricky Rubio’s injury ridden freshman campaign—and left adrift through many others, but underwater all the while.
A sequence of dramatic rebuilds began when the Wolves sent Garnett to the Boston Celtics for a hodgepodge of five players and two first round draft picks. The trade was made after the 2006-07 season, but even the pieces that General Manager Kevin McHale coveted (mainly Al Jefferson) didn’t pan out in Minnesota. Just five short years later, not one asset acquired in the swap remained on their roster.
With seasons of 22, 24, 15 and 17 wins behind them, the Wolves finally stumbled upon hope in 2011-12. Kevin Love, who they acquired in a draft night trade with the Memphis Grizzlies, had come into his own the year prior. He averaged over 20 points and 15 rebounds while garnering his first all-star selection. And Rubio, hardly more than a figment of our imagination at the time, decided to hop the pond and join the pack.
2011-12 was shortened to 66 games because of a strike. The Wolves got off to a slow start, winning four of their first 12, but they went 17-11 over the next two months to insert themselves into the playoff hunt. On March 12th, they hosted Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in a game that came down to the wire. With less than 20 seconds to play and the Wolves up by one, Rubio defended Bryant. He tore his ACL stepping in front of the legendary wing behind the perimeter, ending his and the Wolves season. They went just 5-21 the rest of the way, capped off by a 1-13 final stretch.
Over the next two years, the Love-Rubio core was marred by injuries, mismanagement and poor clutch time play. After the 2013-14 season, in which they finished 40-44, Flip Saunders traded Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. A new rebuild was born.
The most recent rendition of the youthful Wolves has inspired boundless hope. First it was Wiggins and Zach LaVine, and the Bounce Bros were given a long leash to flash their potential as rookies. Though they won just 16 games, it reaped the first overall pick in the 2015-16 draft, which Saunders used to select Karl-Anthony Towns. Optimism was tangible and the present was irrelevant.
But when they traded for Jimmy Butler before this season, their core became a capable one. Playoffs were anticipated and anything less would be a travesty, the first time that could be said in over a decade. For four months the calendar turned while the Wolves climbed in the standings. Locker room banter proceeded more wins than losses and the new group looked poised to take the next step. They were 36-25—sitting third in the Western Conference—before Butler suffered a knee injury against the Houston Rockets. An embattled fan-base seemed numb.
Through thick and thin, with their best player sidelined for 17 consecutive games, and more than a quarter of the season in all, the Wolves stayed afloat. Thanks in large part to the remarkable play of Towns and consistent oversight from Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague, they went 8-9 while Butler rehabbed. And since his return they’ve won consecutive games by 17 and 19 points.
Which brings us to tonight’s match up: 14 years of disappointing history culminates in a winner-take-all game 82 against the Denver Nuggets. It’s only right that fans will pack the renovated Target Center to watch the reconstructed Wolves attempt to break the barriers of their franchise’s past.
The Nuggets, on the other hand, haven’t made the playoffs in five years and lost the Western Conference’s eighth seed to the Portland Trail Blazers on the final night of the 2016-17 season. Similar to the Wolves, the Nuggets feature a young core highlighted by a talented, third-year center. They also added an All-Star free agent before the season who has missed considerable time to injury. They will be equally desperate and similarly motivated, adding to the spectacle of the NBA’s first win-or-go-home regular season game since 1997 when Washington beat Cleveland.
In anticipation, Towns spoke to the media after yesterday’s practice.
He’s right. Wolves fans have waited long enough. But so has he. So has Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng, Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica. This team has faced adversity through much of the season and most of their careers and tonight is an opportunity to finally turn the page. There are a number of scenarios that could play out with regard to post-season seeding but they all rely on a Wolves win. A win that would end a historic drought and bring spring basketball to downtown Minneapolis for the first time in what feels like forever. A win that would inspire nine-year-old fans like me.
7:00 pm CST
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