Playoff spot on line for Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves tonight

* Tonight on NBA TV:  Nuggets vs. Timberwolves (8 ET)

Win and you are in. Five magic words every team hopes to hear at some point in their season when it comes to a playoff spot. For the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets, that phrase is true for both teams as they face each other in the season’s final game. 

For Minnesota, this is a chance to end a playoff drought that has been in place since 2004. Denver’s postseason dry spell isn’t nearly as long (they last made it in 2013), but they aren’t looking to make offseason vacation plans just yet either. And, this game is just one of many tonight that will shape the run for 11 playoff seeds that are up for grabs. 

Gina Mizell of The Denver Post writes on the change she’s seen in the Nuggets during their six-game win streak, including their belief in themselves that is as rock-solid as ever. In particular, she reports on how a team meeting after Denver’s back-to-back losses in Toronto and Philadelphia two weeks ago sharpened the team’s resolve:

“I knew that we weren’t out of it,” coach Michael Malone said of that meeting. “But the only way we were going to have a chance to stay in it was more mental than physical. I use the word ‘belief’ because I think that is a huge part of this. If our guys did not believe, we would not have beaten OKC and we would have been out of the playoffs probably five games ago.”

Guard Will Barton said he could feel an increased level of chemistry and communication forming throughout the season, though injuries to Gary Harris and splashy free-agent signing Paul Millsap forced the team to adjust multiple times on the fly. Mason Plumlee credits Malone for “(pushing) when he needs to push and (pulling) back when he needs to pull back.” Now, each game is peppered with coaches and teammates imploring each other to grab a key rebound, get a stop or shoot when open. Malone calls it replacing pressure with purpose.

“We’re not folding,” Barton said. “Good play (or) bad play, guys are just coming together … now with the season on the line, you can tell, you can see it in the guys’ faces. No one wants to lose.”

The Nuggets can easily trace the origin of this late-season surge back to Toronto. It’s where they reaffirmed that they still believed.

And now?

“It’s as high as it can be,” Malone said. “I don’t know if it can get any higher.”

In Minnesota, a February injury to All-Star guard Jimmy Butler, some inexplicable losses and surges by other squads in the Western Conference have put the Wolves in this win-or-go-home situation. A team stocked with young talent and veterans alike, the Wolves will be looking to their playoff-tested teammates tonight, writes Jerry Zgoda of The Star Tribune:

Forgive the Wolves — the West’s most improved team this season by 15 victories, so far — if they feel conspired against.

“No one wants us to be in the playoffs, that’s just a given,” All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “The universe seems to not want us to be in the playoffs. Nothing has ever come easy for Minnesota. It’s only right that it comes down to one game and it means the most to us and to this franchise. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be fun, and if it was easy, it wouldn’t be the Minnesota way.

“We’ve got to go out there and get things done the hard way.”

“I’ve played in five Game 7s, but I’ve never played in a win-and-in,” guard Jamal Crawford said. “We can control our own destiny. If you would have told us at the beginning of the season that we have a game to win to get into the playoffs at home, sign me up.”

A playoff game before the playoffs begin Saturday, Wednesday is the reason Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves coach and president of basketball operations, traded for Butler last summer and signed Crawford, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose to play alongside Towns and Wiggins.

“To help with the young guys, so they can share with them the things they’ve gone through,” Thibodeau said. “You’ve got to go out there and earn it. That’s what we’re looking forward to.”

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Which teams out West are rising as the season winds down?

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