The Timberwolves are in the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, which at least is a milestone and at best is an accomplishment.
It’s been a long time since the NBA playoffs were in Minnesota, so it seems petty to nitpick at the way the Timberwolves got here, with an overtime win in what amounted to a play-in game against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday at Target Center.
Yes, the Timberwolves fell from No. 3 in the Western Conference to the last team in, but they survived the loss of their best player for 17 games down the stretch, so give ’em a break.
They beat the Nuggets 112-106 thanks in large part to veteran Taj Gibson, whose heroic overtime defense on Nuggets big man Nikola Jovic was the difference. Jovic ate Karl-Anthony Towns alive, scoring most of his game-high 35 points before Thibodeau made Gibson stick to him.
With a chance to win in regulation, the Nuggets desperately wanted Jokic to take the final shot. Gibson forced a desperation 3-point attempt that he blocked and stole with 1.6 seconds left. In overtime, Jokic was scoreless on two shots, despite have an inch and 15 pounds on Gibson.
Jimmy Butler took care of the rest, scoring seven points in overtime to push the Timberwolves into the postseason for the first time since Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell led Minnesota to the 2004 Western Conference Final, where they lost to a Lakers team that started Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone.
Gibson, Butler … something doesn’t feel right.
It’s not that Timberwolves have such a slight chance of surviving the Rockets, their first-round opponent starting Saturday or Sunday in Houston; any team would. It’s that the Timberwolves, as currently constituted, don’t look like a team ready to get better without substantive tinkering.
Losing in the playoffs is an admirable, and generally necessary, step toward winning an NBA title, yet for some reason this feels less like part of a process and more like an isolated accomplishment. Four years after drafting Zach LaVine and acquiring Andrew Wiggins, and three years away from using the No. 1 overall pick on Towns, the Timberwolves’ rebuild has become a renovation.
That young core around which they would build — Towns, Wiggins, LaVine and point guard Ricky Rubio — has been reduced to Towns, an all-star who at 22 still has his best years ahead of him.
LaVine was sent to Chicago for Butler, the Wolves’ best player but 29; Rubio was traded to Utah so they could sign Jeff Teague, marginally better but two years older; and Wiggins … well, Wiggins is just never going to be the player the Wolves hoped he’d be.
“I hope I’m here forever,” Wiggins said after signing a five-year, $150 million extension last fall. It’s hard to imagine the Timberwolves sharing that sentiment. He hit two free throws in overtime to help seal Wednesday’s victory but seems to be regressing under Thibodeau, and it’s hard to tell where Thibs starts and Wiggins begins.
Does Wiggins hang out behind the arc because that’s the plan or because he’s just watching the game? Does he abort 75 percent of his drives because the coach likes his pull-up jumper or because he’s averse to contact?
Wiggins’ 17.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists in his fourth NBA season just about match the rookie numbers he put up after Cleveland sent him here for Kevin Love, and if the light doesn’t go on next year his contract just makes him in the way on a team that scraped into the playoffs.
Gibson is 32, Butler 29 and Teague (17 points, game-high seven assists) is 29.
When the postseason field was set late Wednesday, ESPN NBA reporter Bobby Marks tweeted out a list of the 16 playoffs teams ranked by age. The Timberwolves ranked ninth.
It seems like they should be better or younger.