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Playoff basketball returns to Minnesota

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Credit: Hannah Foslien | Getty Images

Credit: Hannah Foslien | Getty Images

Credit: Hannah Foslien | Getty Images

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Five Takeaways after the Minnesota Timberwolves’ thrilling 112-106 overtime victory against the Denver Nuggets.

  1. Timberwolves defeat Nuggets to clinch eight and final playoff spot: It took overtime, but the Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Denver Nuggets 112-106 in overtime at Target Center in front of a sold-out crowd of almost 19,000. It was the most important game for the Timberwolves in 14 years. Jimmy Butler was fantastic, with 31 points, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds, as was Karl-Anthony Towns, with 26 points and 14 rebounds. Andrew Wiggins deserves a significant amount of credit for his role in the win. He scored 18 points, which doesn’t stand out, but his intensity, especially on defense and rebounding, as well as his courage to step up and hit two clutch free throws to push it to a two-possession game with 15 seconds remaining should be applauded. Wiggins has been criticized all season, in some cases fairly, but he played a fantastic game last night. However, the MVP of last night was perhaps Taj Gibson, who clamped down on Denver’s Nikola Jokic in the fourth quarter and overtime, and made many key stops in crunch time. Jokic had been lighting it up, finishing with 35 points and 10 rebounds. But when it mattered, Gibson was phenomenal on Jokic. In most games, Gibson’s physicality might have resulted in more foul calls, but on a win-or-go-home NBA game, it seemed the refs wanted to let the teams play. Overall, it was a fantastic game, actually exceeding the hype, and both teams played fantastic basketball. After 48 minutes, the teams were even, but in overtime, the Timberwolves simply made a few more plays than the Nuggets did, and that was the difference between playing in the playoffs or going home.
  2. Mission Accomplished: The Minnesota Timberwolves accomplished what they set out to do this season: snap the streak of 13-consecutive seasons without making the playoffs. This dubious streak hung over all people associated with the Timberwolves, and it felt like the only thing this Timberwolves squad needed to do was make the playoffs. Expectations will be for this team to become a contender, but making the playoffs was the first and most important task for this team. This was easily the most talent the Timberwolves have had on their roster since 2004, the Western Conference Finals team. With the additions of Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford, Taj Gibson, and most importantly, Jimmy Butler, expectations were high coming into the season. Ultimately, there was simply too much talent on this team to miss the playoffs for a fourteenth straight season. If this team wants to become a contender, playoff experience this season was desperately needed for players like Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Regular season games do not come close to playoff intensity, and the Timberwolves need to play in these games to understand what it takes to win. Fans will hope to see continued improvement from this squad, and expectations will continue to mount, but all Timberwolves players, coaches, fans, and workers can relish in this fact. The streak is over. The Timberwolves will be playing in the NBA playoffs once again.
  3. Jimmy Butler’s impact: When the Timberwolves traded for Jimmy Butler in the offseason, everyone knew that Minnesota was getting a top 10 NBA player. Jimmy Butler did not disappoint, and had an incredible impact on the Timberwolves this season. With Butler, the Wolves were 36-22 with a +8 net rating (113.4 offensive rating, 105.4 defensive rating). Without Butler, the Wolves were 10-13 with a -4.7 net rating (107.7 offensive rating, 112.4 defensive rating). However, Butler also brought so much to the Wolves on a nightly basis that the stats do not show. Butler brought much needed veteran leadership to a team building around two younger players, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Butler taught the younger players toughness and how to compete on the defensive end. Without Butler, it seemed like players would sometimes coast on the defensive end, but with Butler on the floor, players showed intensity,toughness, and want on the defensive end. If Butler had played the whole season, he might have found himself in the top-5 of MVP voting due to his undeniable impact of bringing winning basketball back to Minnesota. He completely changed the Timberwolves’ culture.
  4. Timberwolves’ end of game offense needs to improve: The Timberwolves have the fourth most efficient offense in the NBA according to offensive net rating, but it seems that when defenses tighten up in crunch time, the offense tends to struggle. This was again the case against the Nuggets. Running multiple Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson pick-and-rolls was certainly a questionable game-plan for the most important stretch of the Timberwolves’ season, and the final play in regulation was a serious head-scratcher. It would seem that the Timberwolves could have gotten a better shot than a Jamal Crawford 30-foot floater. Also, the isolation-ball in end of game situations really hampers Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, who almost never touched the ball down the stretch in Wednesday’s game. Especially with Karl-Anthony Towns, who is one of the most offensively talented players in basketball, these players need more touches, and make the end-of-game offense much less predictable. For example, Jimmy Butler’s isolation mid-range shot with 5 seconds left in regulation was incredibly inefficient, and this type of offense will not work in playoff games. Playoff teams will make you pay for that type of offense. Thibodeau needs to look at ways to make the offense less predictable and more efficient in crunch-time situations, and that starts with more ball-movement and less isolation ball.
  5. Houston Rockets Preview: For their first playoff appearance in fourteen years, the Timberwolves are rewarded with a match up against the one-seed Houston Rockets. The Rockets are an absolute juggernaut, led by Chris Paul and MVP favorite James Harden. Harden was magnificent this season, leading the league in scoring with 30.4 points per game, while also averaging 8.8 assists per game. Harden will win the MVP, and deservedly so. However, the Wolves cannot focus only on Harden, because they also have to deal with Chris Paul, who is arguably an even better passer and facilitator than Harden. The Rockets’ supporting cast is also very strong, with Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Gerald Green. Quite simply, the Rockets are a much better team than the Timberwolves, and the Wolves are going to struggle significantly in keeping up with the Rockets. The Rockets swept the season series against the Wolves 4-0, and all the games were comfortable for Houston. The Timberwolves’ goal for this series will be to keep the games competitive and within striking distance going into the final minutes. However, the Wolves will be lucky to win one game in this series. The Rockets’ offense is simply too strong for Minnesota’s shaky defense to keep up with. Prediction: Rockets in five.
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Playoff basketball returns to Minnesota