What a difference a year makes.
364 days ago, the Wolves played their final game of the 2017-2018 regular season against the Denver Nuggets in a win-or-go-home game for the last spot in the Western Conference Playoffs. The Wolves won that game due to some last-second heroics from Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson.
From last year’s recap:
“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.”
The Wolves came away from that game elated, with their first playoff appearance in more than a decade in hand. Of course, the Wolves were then dominated by the Houston Rockets in the first round in a fairly typical 1-8 matchup.
Over the course of this year, the Nuggets and the Wolves diverged to completely different trajectories.
The Nuggets regrouped after a tough year and held the core together, banking on internal improvement. They were rewarded with an MVP-caliber season from Nikola Jokic and increased success from their other key cornerstones of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. It also helped that Paul Millsap was able to play 69 games compared to 38 the year before.
That is the type of season that we largely expected from the Wolves heading into the season. Leadership from Jimmy Butler paired with growth from Karl-Anthony Towns likely would have led to a top-four seed in the messy Western Conference. Instead, the team blew up in a spectacular fashion and the franchise’s future is in doubt while ownership gets to decide between an actual transition process or if they will just throw up a facade and dither in the backwoods of NBA-suckage. We will find out in a few months.
We will have plenty of time for subject ourselves to the annual crisis that is the Timberwolves offseason. For now, we have one more meaningless game left to play. There should be about zero chance the Wolves win this game. They have a half-a-game lead on Lakers for the 10th highest lottery odds and Denver needs to win this game to ensure they remain the 2nd seed.
Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns are reportedly doubtful for tonight, which further removes any chance of victory.
Instead, we will just have to enjoy the small joys of the skeleton crew that is taking the Wolves to the finish life. There is a decent chance this is Tyus Jones’ last game in a Timberwolves uniform, so hopefully we will get one more game with ridiculous plus-minus numbers, a few steals, 10 assists, no turnovers, and two possessions where he is wide open at the rim and doesn’t look to shoot.
Gorgui Dieng will get another chance to shine. The all-youth wing rotation of Josh Okogie, Keita Bates-Diop, Cam Reynolds, and Mitch Creek will get to go out and do stuff.
I guess there is also a chance that this is Andrew Wiggins last game in a Timberwolves uniform, which is something I did not realize until coming to the end of this preview. While unlikely, if that ends up being the case, all I can hope for is that we see good Wiggins tonight, perhaps with a vintage poster-dunk.
Projected Starting Lineups
Until next time.