MINNEAPOLIS, April 18 (Ticker) -- Forget about Kevin Garnett's playoff history. What about Sam Cassell's playoff history?

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Using a quick start and strong finish, Cassell scored a playoff career-high 40 points to lead the Minnesota Timberwolves to a 106-92 victory over the Denver Nuggets in the opener of their Western Conference first-round series.

"Sam has a great deal of confidence," Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said. "The shots he took tonight are the ones he's been taking all year ... He's a player with no fear."

Minnesota's Sam Cassell went 16-for-24 from the field.
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An 11-year veteran, Cassell developed a reputation early in his career as a clutch playoff performer as he helped the Houston Rockets win consecutive championships in 1994-95.

"You saw him hit all those shots for Houston his first couple of years in the league, stepping up and hitting those shots," Minnesota guard Fred Hoiberg said. "This is when Sam's going to thrive - in the playoffs, in pressure situations."

"Sam's been there quite often, with two rings," Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik said.

The talkative point guard is in his first season with Minnesota, which has lost in the first round seven straight years. Garnett, one of the NBA's best players, has taken a lot of heat for his inability to win in the playoffs.

Cassell maintained he wasn't part of that history and proved it, making 16-of-24 shots and torching a handful of defenders with drives, 3-pointers and his patented mid-range game.

"The coaches were telling me to be aggressive and drive the ball, and if you have to shoot every time on the pick and roll, shoot it every time," Cassell said. "So that's what I did."

Cassell scored 12 points on 5-of-5 shooting in the first quarter, when Minnesota grabbed the lead for good. He scored 12 more in the final eight minutes, turning back a rally by Denver.

"He got it going early, and we couldn't stop him," Denver guard Earl Boykins said.

Most important, Cassell picked up Garnett, who battled foul trouble and collected 30 points and 20 rebounds. In the past, this may have been a postseason game he would have lost.

"Sam was shooting the ball really well, and I didn't want to go against that," Garnett said.

"Sam was unbelievable," Saunders said. "He made big shots to get us going."

Instead, the top-seeded Timberwolves won Game 1 for the first time in eight all-time series. Game 2 is Wednesday at Minnesota.

While the Wolves are in the playoffs for the eighth straight year, the eighth-seeded Nuggets are in the postseason for the first time since 1995. Eight of their 12 players were playing in their first playoff game, and the inexperience showed.

"There's no substitute for experience," Bzdelik said. "They got their feet wet and they battled."

Star rookie Carmelo Anthony scored 19 points but made just 6-of-17 shots, including 0-of-5 from 3-point range. He picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter and never found a rhythm, fouling out in the final minute.

"This game is a big learning experience for me," Anthony said. "I can go watch on film what I did well and what I did wrong."

Cassell's 3-pointer capped an 8-0 burst early in the third quarter that gave Minnesota a 59-44 lead. The bulge ballooned to 70-48 before Denver came back, closing to 80-75 early in the final period.

Garnett sank two free throws and a short jumper before Cassell's 19-footer made it 86-75 with 7:46 to go.

Garnett took a seat with his fifth foul, and a three-point play by Marcus Camby - who scored 19 points - made it 87-80 with 6:36 remaining. But Cassell's jumper capped a 6-0 burst that rebuilt the lead to 13 points.

"If I get looks like that every night, I think my teammates and coaching staff like my chances of making those types of shots," Cassell said.

"When he gets rolling like that, you just kind of let him do his thing," Hoiberg said.