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Wolves 112, Nuggets 106: All Eyes North

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NBA Playoff Basketball has Returned to Minnesota.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into this season there were a lot of lofty expectations surrounding this Timberwolves team that this fanbase is not used to hearing. The preseason projections, the Vegas odds — it was all exciting to hear, but many of us still held onto a healthy amount of suspicion. As Minnesota sports fans, we’ve witnessed so much heartbreak over the years that we’ve been conditioned to understand that you win until you eventually lose, and that’s just the name of the game.

But tonight, after 13 years of falling short of the postseason, we forget everything we’ve learned and can revel — if only briefly — in the tremendous satisfaction of witnessing success from a team we’ve seen through so much. For the first time since 2004, the Target Center will host NBA playoff basketball.

What could possibly be said about a game like this? The 82nd game of the season for both teams that comes down to a do-or-die play-in situation for the postseason, topped off with an extra five minutes of overtime? Is this The Truman Show?

As painstaking as this game was at times, there is actually a lot to celebrate when we look into the details. This Denver team came in riding high on a six-game winning streak, of which included big wins over plenty of other teams fighting for their playoff lives.

As such, the Wolves seemed to be working out some nervous energy early on where they struggled to get things under control and let the Nuggets settle in and get comfortable. Will Barton was a key player for Denver in this one (in addition to Nikola Jokic — more on him in a bit) and he kept them rolling early by working his way into the paint and connecting from deep. He would finish with 24 points (5-10 from three) and eight rebounds.

For the Wolves, Denver wasn’t doubling Karl-Anthony Towns in the first half, which helped open up for a big night for him. Finishing with 26 points and 14 rebounds, he was a big deciding factor for the Wolves in this one in addition to Butler’s usual success, Andrew “All the Small Things” Wiggins and Taj Gibson’s sound defensive presence.

Minnesota opened things up a bit in the second quarter with the help of a small ball lineup (Jones, Rose, Crawford, Butler, Towns), which worked to get them their first definitive run of the game, resulting in a seven-point lead with six minutes to go in the first half. Denver tried to reconcile by calling a timeout and adjusting their lineup, but the Wolves remained on top for the rest of the half by taking care of the basketball (committing just two turnovers in the half), outscoring the Nuggets in transition (8-0) and limiting Denver’s second chance points.

Towns meanwhile continued to bring the energy in the second quarter, in which he threw down two emphatic dunks.

With less than two minutes to go in the first half, we saw the re-ignition of the mysterious beef between Towns and Nikola Jokic. After drawing an offensive foul on Jokic and a missed call that went in KAT’s favor, Jokic proceeded to goad Towns into tallying two quick fouls of his own right before the end of the half, sending Towns into the locker room with three fouls in a game where the Wolves were desperate to have him on the floor.

In the second half, Denver was quick to erase the deficit and came out on a pointed 7-0 run, which paved the way for a messy stretch of possessions filled with phantom foul calls and missed whistles on both ends of the floor. It’s one thing for the refs to let both teams play or to call a game tightly, but the inconsistency that we’ve seen all season long across the NBA was again present tonight, and it’s an issue the league is in desperate need of addressing.

With the Nuggets making a run, Jokic, the oft-forgotten unicorn, really came out of his shell in the second half, wreaking all sorts of havoc. He is uniquely crafty in so many ways, including drawing fouls. In addition to the early calls he got on Towns, he was able to give Taj Gibson an early fourth foul and send him to the bench for much of the third quarter. Meanwhile Jokic got hot from deep and hit three shots from beyond the arc in quick succession to keep Denver within striking distance as the Wolves tried to pull away.

With a five-point lead at the start of the final quarter, the Wolves started running their offense through Butler. Even though he wasn’t able to connect on much from the field in the fourth (he did end up finishing with 31/5/5), his facilitation led to a lot of buckets from the surrounding cast. And on the other end of the floor this team looked unusually cohesive, stepping in on dribble-drives and making smart rotations on defense.

Despite this success late in the game, the Wolves lost the lead with 2:51 to go thanks to a nasty step-back three from Jamal Murray. And after a Butler drive on the other end, Murray answered right back and tied it up again at 101-101.

From there, it felt like the score was tied for an eternity. It was stop after stop for a string of possessions, culminating with a missed Jimmy Butler fadeaway and Nuggets timeout with 4.4 seconds remaining. With the ball at halfcourt, Denver inbounded straight to Jokic, who stepped in on his defender, dribbled back into the corner, wound up for a three and was stripped clean by Taj Gibson, who had the wherewithal to grab the ball before it fell out of bounds and quickly call a timeout to give the Wolves one final possession. While the Wolves weren’t able to convert on the other end, the importance of that stop by Gibson cannot be overstated — even if it did look incredibly risky in retrospect.

Overtime was an adrenaline-fueled blur. It was an absolute tennis match with both teams trading bucket after bucket on opposite ends of the floor. With a two-point lead and 14.6 seconds left in OT, Andrew Wiggins went to the free throw line where he was 3-6 on the night at that point. He calmly sunk both, making it a two possession game and ultimately sealing the deal for the Minnesota Timberwolves to make their first playoff appearance since 2004.

Elsewhere around the league, the Pelicans beat the Spurs while the Thunder topped the Grizzlies, which means Minnesota will face off as the eighth seed against the Houston Rockets, who they lost to four times this season. Now, eliminate the final clause of that last sentence from your brain and go enjoy the fact that playoff basketball has returned to the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise!