There was 1:16 left in the game. Wilson Chandler stood at the free throw line facing some pressurized free throws, and Nuggets president of basketball operations, Tim Connelly, had made his way down from his office to a tunnel to watch the action in person.
The Nuggets executive rocked back-and-forth, arms folded, feeling every bit of the stomach-churning nervousness the fans in the nearly sold-out Pepsi Center were also experiencing.
Because, meaningful games are nerve-wracking games.
The Nuggets, however, are brushing away the butterflies and passing the tests. Chandler made those free throws, and the Nuggets went on to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves, 100-96, on Thursday night. It was the Nuggets’ season-high tying fourth-straight win, and it was a huge one. It pulled them into a tie with Minnesota, both now with 44-35 records. Now, it’s game on in the Western Conference playoff race.
Right now, the Nuggets remain in ninth because the Timberwolves own tiebreakers over them. But win the last three games, including the season finale in Minnesota next week? The Nuggets are in the playoffs.
“The beat goes on; we’re moving in the right direction,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
“Now the Clippers game (on Saturday) is the biggest game of the year.”
The Clippers are hanging on for dear life in the playoff race. Lose to the Nuggets on Saturday afternoon, and they will be eliminated from postseason contention. But breaking down those scenarios can wait. Setting the stage for that game required the Nuggets to lean on their defense against Minnesota to see them through.
And what a defensive performance it was.
This was the first time in 29 games that the Nuggets held a team under 100 points. The last time that happened, Jan. 27 at Dallas, Devin Harris was still playing for the Mavericks.
“I just thought we were solid,” center Mason Plumlee said. “It’s big of us to win a game where we don’t shoot particularly well. Guys stepped up and guarded their guys.”
The Nuggets held Minnesota to 39.5 percent shooting in the second half, including just 2-of-11 from the 3-point line. The Wolves, one of the better rebounding teams in the NBA, had just four offensive rebounds and scored just four second-chance points. That meant not only were the Nuggets solid in their initial defense, but they were holding the Wolves to one shot on the majority of the second-half possessions.
And that gave time for the Nuggets’ offense, which struggled much of the night, to gain a little traction.
Harris was the catalyst. He hit three 3-pointers late in the third quarter. The second of those threes gave the Nuggets their first lead since early in the second quarter. Harris scored nine of the team’s final 11 points of the quarter.
“I made a couple of shots early, just got in a groove,” said Harris, who finished with a season-high 20 points. “And then, from there just tried to find open spots. It was my night to make shots tonight.”
The Nuggets lost that lead briefly in the fourth quarter, but quickly got it back and made the necessary plays to pull out the victory. Those plays included Chandler’s free throws. Paul Millsap made a pair as well, and the Nuggets beat Minnesota for the first time this season. Minnesota star Karl-Anthony Towns fouled out with 1:46 to play. The Nuggets outscored Minnesota 8-3 after he left to win the game.
Jamal Murray led the Nuggets with 22 points. Nikola Jokić suffered through an off shooting night, but still nearly had a triple-double of 16 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists. Will Barton added 14 points, six rebounds and six assists.
Now, the Nuggets must continue their hot play with a Saturday afternoon date at the L.A. Clippers.
“Every game is big,” Plumlee said. “There are only so many left. We knew this was a big one coming in. As big as this one is, we have to forget about it just as quickly and go to L.A. and get another one.”
Christopher Dempsey: email@example.com and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.