After weeks of teams jockeying for position, fans and writers teasing out complicated two-, three- and four-team tiebreaker scenarios, and everybody generally feeling drunk and lost in the tall grass in the run-up to the postseason, the blessed arrival of a deadline has at last made things blood simple. After the OklahomaCity Thunder, SanAntonio Spurs and NewOrleans Pelicans punched their tickets on Monday, there’s just one 2018 playoff spot left in the Western Conference. There are two teams still eligible to take it: the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets.
As luck would have it, those two teams play one another on Wednesday night. Winner gets in. Loser goes home.
Both teams entered Monday at 45-35, needing wins to keep their hopes of ending their respective postseason droughts — four years for the Nuggets, 13 years for the Wolves — alive heading into the season’s last day. Minnesota shook off a sluggish start that had them down double-digits early in the second quarter to a whisper of a rumor of the Memphis Grizzlies, taking a mid-second lead on five straight buckets by Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler, and never looking back:
The Wolves controlled the second half, keeping the pseudo-Grizz at arm’s length en route to a 113-94 win. Towns (24 points on 11-for-14 shooting, 18 rebounds, two assists) and point guard Jeff Teague (24 points, eight assists, four rebounds, three steals) led the way, while Butler added 15 points, three assists, three steals, two assists and one come-hither stare in his 23 minutes in just his second game back from a torn meniscus:
Jimmy Butler is a living, breathing meme. pic.twitter.com/PHjgfg5CuZ
— Yahoo Sports NBA (@YahooSportsNBA) April 10, 2018
While the Wolves needed only to take care of business against tanking Memphis, the Nuggets faced a tougher task: the Portland Trail Blazers, who’d already earned their spot in the postseason, but who still had a shot at 50 wins and who needed a victory to bolster their chances of securing the No. 3 seed out West. Somewhat surprisingly, given all the offensive talent on hand, the result was a rock fight … and, even more surprisingly, it was the Nuggets, who’ve had damn near the worst defense in the league since the All-Star break, who came away with the win:
On a night where neither team could manage to knock down the open looks they were generating, and in a game in which the entire final 16 minutes was played within two possessions, the Nuggets got just enough to get over the finish line for an 88-82 win.
They got just enough stops against a Portland team that’s gone ice-cold at an inopportune time of year, thanks in part to what Armstrong Winter of Hoop Ball identified as a smart move by Nuggets coach Mike Malone to muck up the matchups in the frontcourt:
Al-Farouq Aminu‘s shooting struggles continued on Monday; he was just 3-of-13 overall and 1-of-7 from deep. Even those poor numbers don’t accurately portray the scope of his negative influence offensively, though, a byproduct of Malone sticking the plodding [Nikola] Jokic on Aminu and Paul Millsap on [Jusuf] Nurkic. The Nuggets were fully content watching Aminu try open triple after open triple after he set ball screens, asking Jokic to force the rock from [Damian] Lillard’s hands as the primary defender recovered in rear-view pursuit. The result wasn’t just missed jumpers and typically uncomfortable dribble-drives by Aminu, but also clogged driving lanes by the presence of Nurkic, who doesn’t shoot threes, inside the arc. Time and time again, there was just nowhere for Lillard and [C.J.] McCollum to go.
They got just enough individual offensive creation from shooting guard Will Barton, who attacked his way a team-high 22 points on 15 shots to go with seven rebounds and three assists. They got just enough of pretty much everything else from star center Jokic, who has carried Denver through its season-saving six-game winning streak, and who scored 15 points, pulled down 20 rebounds and dished 11 assists to notch his 10th triple-double of the season. Only Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Ben Simmons have more.
Nurkic bulldozed Denver inside to the tune of 20 points and 19 rebounds (eight on the offensive glass). But Jokic got the better of his former teammate when it counted, scoring or assisting on 12 of Denver’s 22 fourth-quarter points — including a bullet of a high-low feed to a cutting Jamal Murray for a layup that put the Nuggets up five with just under two minutes to go — to help keep Portland at bay.
“I told them at halftime, I was honest, I said, ‘Fellas, if we lose, we’re out,'” Malone said after the game, according to the Associated Press. “I knew some of these other teams had won games. And I felt we played like our lives were on the line. It wasn’t pretty, but I thought our defense was phenomenal.”
And so, come Wednesday, it’s a one-game play-in. (Adam Silver, you sly dog. Avert your eyes, LeBron!) The Wolves and Nuggets will tangle again, just six days after their last meeting, which ended with a Jokic tip-in that helped Denver secure a four-point win.
This time, the Wolves will have Butler; this time, the Nuggets will have ace shooting guard Gary Harris, who returned Monday after missing 11 games with a sprained right knee and got back into the swing of things with 12 points and two steals in 18 minutes. This time, there’s absolutely no margin for error. One team’s going to wind up getting a chance to play spoiler in Round 1. The other could face major changes — in the front office, on the bench, in the rotation, you name it — as a result of the disappointment of missing the playoffs.
The stakes are clear, the stage is set. Four quarters, 48 minutes, winner take all. Ought to make for a pretty fun little Wednesday in downtown Minneapolis.
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