MINNEAPOLIS – Andrew Wiggins left Minnesota’s arena on Monday night with the hope that Denver would lose and, thus, secure the Timberwolves a spot in the playoffs.
He planned to track the Nuggets on his smartphone like most of his teammates, but there was no viewing party in the works or anxious huddle around the high-definition television in the locker room.
The Timberwolves mostly were just relieved they did their part by beating Memphis, considering way they’ve playing lately.
“It’s our fault for leaving it up to chance,” Wiggins said. “So we’ve just got to wait and see.”
Fittingly for a once-promising season that has become a slog to the finish, the Wolves wound up watching the Nuggets rally past Portland about an hour after they left the court at Target Center. That kept Denver tied with Minnesota at 46-35 for eighth place in the Western Conference with two days remaining on the schedule.
Well, guess who their final opponent is? The Nuggets will bring a six-game winning streak to Target Center on Wednesday night.
“If it was easy it wouldn’t be fun,” center Karl-Anthony Towns said after practice Tuesday. “If it was easy it wouldn’t be the Minnesota way.”
The Wolves’ last trip to the playoffs ended with a loss in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference finals in 2004, when Kevin Garnett was patrolling the post. Towns? He was 8 years old. Wiggins was 9.
“They’ve prepared themselves all year for this,” coach Tom Thibodeau said, expressing confidence in the team’s young cornerstones to perform up to the task despite missing critical postseason experience.
With the Nuggets and Wolves only one game behind New Orleans, Oklahoma City and San Antonio, the winner could receive quite the reward. Both Denver and Minnesota can still finish as high as fifth.
There’ll be some relief and satisfaction just to be part of the 16-team tournament after the 82-game grind, but avoiding the eighth seed and a matchup with league-leading Houston would be preferable. Same goes for seventh place and pairing with defending NBA champion Golden State, a daunting foe even if star Steph Curry isn’t cleared yet to return from his knee injury.
The Wolves were in control of a spot in the playoffs, as high as third place, for most of this season until Jimmy Butler’s absence began to catch up to them and their primary competitors in the West cranked up their games. The Wolves have won both games with Butler back from the meniscus cartilage injury in his right knee, after going 8-9 without him, but losing at home to the Grizzlies two weeks ago even with their emotional leader and best all-around player missing was still inexcusable. Just one more win, and they’d already be safely in.
Nothing ever comes easy for this snake-bitten franchise, though, a history that Towns and Wiggins are well aware of.
“I’ve been here my whole career now,” Wiggins said. “So it’s about time we do something.”
The Nuggets have their own long-frustrated fan base, with their last appearance in the playoffs coming in 2013. The last time they passed the first round was 2009, one of the franchise’s three trips to the Western Conference finals since joining the NBA. The others were in 1978 and 1985.
Seven of Denver’s last nine opponents are headed to the playoffs. The other two were against the Timberwolves, without Butler, and the Los Angeles Clippers, the only other teams in the league that haven’t clinched but sport winning records. The Nuggets eliminated the Clippers (42-39) by beating them on Saturday.
They’ve had to do this the hard way, too.
“We wouldn’t want it any other way,” guard Gary Harris said.
The Nuggets have produced a remarkable series of clutch performances, with fourth-quarter moxie pushing them to this point as much as any specific skill or strength. They held the Blazers to just 33 points in the second half on Monday night, further galvanizing their belief that not only can they make the playoffs but be a factor once they begin.
“It’s as high as it can be,” coach Mike Malone said. “I don’t know if it can get any higher. To not play your best basketball and still find ways to win is a really encouraging and confidence-building type of feel.”
AP Sports Writer Arnie Stapleton in Denver contributed to this report.
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