It all comes down to the season’s final day for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets. The teams share identical 46-35 records and the eighth playoff slot in the Western Conference is the only one still up for grabs. The winner of the season finale in Minneapolis make it. The loser goes fishing.
For the Timberwolves, a win would mean an end to a 14-year playoff drought. The last time Minnesota played a playoff game, Latrell Sprewell scored 27 points and Kevin Garnett added 22 and 17 rebounds, but the team fell short against Shaq, Kobe and the Lakers in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals.
For Denver, it has taken a superstar stretch from forward/center Nikola Jokic to fuel a six-game win streak that kept its season alive. According to StatMuse, Jokic has averaged two assists shy of a triple-double over that stretch as he’s willed the Nuggets to the postseason.
Nikola Jokic during the Nuggets' 6-game season-saving winning streak:
51/35/87 shooting pic.twitter.com/N4csQuUOVb
— StatMuse (@statmuse) April 10, 2018
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Denver shooting guard Gary Harris, who returned from an 11-game absence to score 12 points on nine shots against the Trail Blazers Tuesday, spoke after the latest win about what it’s going to take to keep his team’s season alive
“Minnesota’s not going to let us win,” said Harris. “They’re coming in and they’re trying to fight for the playoffs as well. We’re going to have to take it from Minnesota.”
Nuggets coach Michael Malone said he reminded his team at halftime against Portland that the season was on the line.
“I said fellas if we lose, we’re out,” said Malone. “I felt like we played like our lives were on the line.
“We never quit, even when it looked bleak. And we’ve done that now in this six-game win streak quite a few times. The game looks like it’s over, we have no chance. But we find a way. We’re playing get-it-done basketball.”
For Denver, keeping the streak alive has meant winning in a variety of ways, including a reliance on defense and hustle when the offense has struggled.
“We had 88 points tonight,” said Malone. “We’ve been the number one offense since the All-Star break. But we still found a way to win when our offense wasn’t clicking on all cylinders and we weren’t making shots.”
Nuggets forward Paul Millsap concurred and spoke of his words of encouragement to his teammates to keep the season going.
“We’ve always been an offensive-minded team,” said Millsap. “But now we’re trying to buckle down and lock in on defense. When your offense isn’t going every game and you can’t make shots, you’ve got to find a way to win games. Secure a rebound, take a charge, get a steal. Do something to help your team win a game. That’s what it’s all about.”
Malone also insisted that it’s time for Jokic to get credit for the kind of impact he’s making in the league after a triple-double performance against Portland.
“For him to get 15, 20 and 11, come on, if he’s not All-NBA I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Malone. “When Nikola plays aggressive, whether it’s scoring, rebounding or playmaking, he’s one of the best big men, best players in the NBA.”
The Timberwolves also got a key player back when Jimmy Butler was available for the first time since a February knee injury in Monday’s 113-94 win over the visiting Memphis Grizzlies. Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said he’ll listen to Butler going forward about minutes after he started and played 23 against Memphis.
“It’s trusting him, which I do implicitly,” said Thibodeau after Monday’s win. “Jimmy will tell me if he needs less or he needs more. I think he’s ready to go.”
It’s a huge positive for the Timberwolves for a variety of reasons, said Thibodeau, but especially Butler’s defensive versatility.
“It’s his leadership, but also the way he guards everyone,” said Thibodeau. “You can put Jimmy on anyone. You can put Jimmy on a center, you can put him on a point guard. And that’s what gives you great value.”
Thibodeau also spoke of his message to his team as Minnesota has thus-far failed to clinch a playoff spot.
“We talked about finishing,” said Thibodeau. “That’s been our theme, whether it’s practice, film session, a closeout, a drive, a quarter. Just finish. Whatever way we have to get there, let’s get there.”
To get there, the Timberwolves will have to finish in a win-or-go-home scenario against a surging Nuggets team. Millsap confirmed the stakes Tuesday night.
“[We] continue to fight to put ourselves in a situation to go out there and get in the playoffs,” said Millsap. And we have our opportunity. Now it’s do or die.”
Malone added that the Nuggets plan to keep battling to the end.
“We’re not going out like that,” said Malone. “If you’re going to eliminate us, we’re going to fight.”