It’s been less than a week since Jimmy Butler made his return to the Minnesota Timberwolves lineup after missing six weeks following surgery to repair a torn right meniscus. He hasn’t had much time to get up to speed, but with the Wolves fighting for their postseason lives, he knew he needed to be at his best come Wednesday’s winner-take-all meeting with the Denver Nuggets.
“I don’t care if I don’t have a rhythm. I don’t care if I’m not making shots. I’ll find a way to impact the game,” Butler said, according to Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “All in all, I just want to help this team win. I don’t care if I’m making shots, if I’m passing the ball, if I’m guarding, but I’ll be there to change the game.”
He was there all night on Wednesday, scoring seven of his team-high 31 points in overtime to lead Minnesota to a thrilling 112-106 victory in a win-or-go-home final game of the regular season between two teams vying for one playoff berth — just the third time that’s happened since the NBA went to its current payoff format in 1983, and the first time it’s happened since 1997 — that officially eliminated the Nuggets and ended the Timberwolves franchise’s NBA-leading 13-year playoff drought.
All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns added 26 points and 14 rebounds in the win, Minnesota’s 47th of the year, to outduel fellow rising star big man Nikola Jokic, who paced the Nuggets with a game-high 35 points on 14-for-25 shooting to go with 10 rebounds and three assists in a brilliant effort that came up just a few minutes and a few shots short.
Taj Gibson, who joined longtime Chicago Bulls teammate Butler in the Twin Cities this summer, proved to be worth every penny of the free-agent contract Tom Thibodeau gave him by clamping down on Denver’s Serbian star late in the game. Gibson stole the ball from Jokic in the short corner on a possession that could’ve won it for the Nuggets in the closing seconds of regulation, and continued to muscle him up and harass him in OT, holding Denver’s top gun to three points on 1-for-6 shooting over the final 10 minutes of game time.
That defensive effort — plus the persistent attacking of Butler, who fought through 42 minutes of fatigue to will his way to the free-throw line time and again late — helped give Minnesota just enough of an edge in the closing stages to fend off Denver, bringing a heartbreaking premature end to the Nuggets’ season and ensuring that, for the first time since Kevin Garnett’s first tour of duty, they’ll be playing postseason basketball in downtown Minneapolis.
Andrew Wiggins added 18 points, five rebounds and three assists in 42 minutes for the Wolves, and knocked down a pair of clutch free-throws to give Minnesota a two-possession lead with 14 seconds to go in overtime. Sophomore guard Jamal Murray chipped in 20 points, six rebounds and six assists for Denver, shaking off a slow start to get hot late in the fourth quarter and spark what looked like it might be a season-saving comeback for the Nuggets, who’d entered Wednesday having won six straight games to give themselves a chance to vault into the playoffs on the season’s final night.
But costly miscues — 15 turnovers leading to 23 Wolves points, a number of clanged wide-open looks from outside, misses in the paint by Jokic and Will Barton (24 points, eight rebounds, five assists) in the final minute of OT — wound up proving to be the difference, sending Denver home before the start of the first round, and moving Minnesota on its first postseason series in 14 years.
That they’ll enter as the No. 8 seed and have to face the West’s No. 1 team, the Houston Rockets, is tomorrow’s problem. For tonight, there’s gonna be a party when the Wolves come home.
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