On Feb. 24, 2018, the Timberwolves were 37-26 overall, good for third place in the Western Conference.
And this wasn’t any Western Conference. This was an absolutely loaded Western Conference. The difference between third place and eighth place at this point was five games. A bad week could be the difference between homecourt advantage and missing the playoffs entirely.
The Timberwolves went all in in 2017-18. You can look at the moves in a few different ways depending on what kind of glasses you’re wearing. To some, it was a combination of moves (led by acquiring Jimmy Butler) to make the Wolves competitive again and if it was only for a season or two before they’d have to start over again, so be it. For others, trading a young player such as Zach LaVine and a top pick for Butler was rushing Minnesota’s timeline with Karl-Anthony Towns, who was just 22 years old, as the cornerstone on the team.
After a Feb. 23 game against the Rockets, it was announced that Butler tore his meniscus. Butler, who has never been a super-durable player (he’s played in just 70 games in a season twice in his career), would miss the next 17 games.
Thanks to Towns and his 25.2 points per game and efficient shooting (54.1 FG%, 42.9 3P%,) the Wolves were able to stay afloat, going 8-9 during that time, including a big win over the Warriors. But 8-9 in this Western Conference wasn’t good enough and the team dipped to the back of the playoff race.
The last five days of the regular season were incredibly stressful ones for Timberwolves fans. Minnesota was tied for eighth place in the West with the Denver Nuggets from April 7 – April 10. The Timberwolves were riding a two-game winning streak heading into the season finale, while the Nuggets rattled off six-straight wins.
Sometimes the basketball gods intervene in the best ways possible.
With identical records of 46-35, the Timberwolves hosted the Nuggets at Target Center in the final game of the season. The winner would go to the playoffs. The loser would go home.
The Wolves were 2-1 against the Nuggets in 2017-18 – but the lone loss came just six days before this matchup.
Nuggets fans might disagree, but as far as which franchise a playoff appearance was more important for, the Timberwolves probably win that battle.
Tom Thibodeau had gone all-in with this roster, a somewhat aging one despite having Towns and Andrew Wiggins. This team didn’t have the pieces to make a championship run, but it was hard to argue that it wasn’t a playoff-caliber team.
Of course, you have to make the playoffs to be considered that.
The Nuggets were on a four-year playoff drought, which surely isn’t great. Meanwhile in Minnesota, the Timberwolves had gone without the postseason for 13 seasons.
Game 82. Here we go.
It was a sold-out Target Center and while the fans were excited and loud, you could sense the nervousness from everyone in the building.
If we win, this will be so incredibly awesome. Something we can tell our grandkids about.
If we lose, I don’t think I’ll ever recover.
There were surely some jitters early on. The two teams combined to miss four of the first five baskets in the game.
After being down 13-8 midway through the first quarter, the Timberwolves found a burst of energy and eventually took a 31-28 lead with 10:34 left in the first half after a huge hammer dunk from Towns that nearly blew the roof off the arena.
The Wolves led 62-54 at halftime. A comfortable lead, all things considered. Many didn’t predict this game to be a back-and-forth offensive showdown. Normally games like these end up being slower and grinded out.
Don’t worry. We’d get there.
Towns made a hook shot to start the third quarter to give the Wolves a 64-54 lead, which would be their largest lead of the game. The Nuggets then scored seven-straight points and were within three with 10:15 left in the third quarter.
We had a ball game.
After basically trading buckets throughout the third, the Wolves led 86-81 going into the fourth quarter. Nuggets All-Star center Nikola Jokic was starting to heat up. He scored 17 points in the third quarter alone and had 30 for the game already.
Minnesota controlled the start of the fourth quarter. After a huge 3-pointer from Jeff Teague with 4:26 left in the game, the Wolves led 99-91.
That’s when the Nuggets got hot. Jokic drilled a 3. Butler missed two big free throws and Jamal Murray came down and hit a deep 2. Butler turned the ball over and Murray capitalized by drilling a 3-pointer.
Just like that, it was tied at 99 with 2:52 left. The energy had been completely sucked out of the building.
Butler redeemed himself, somewhat, hitting a midrange jumper to give the Timberwolves the lead again. But again, Murray responded, hitting a layup.
101-101. Less than two minutes left.
It’s worth noting that the Timberwolves decided to have Taj Gibson guard Jokic rather than Towns late in the fourth. This is less of a knock on Towns as it is a praise to Gibson. He’s the type of gritty defender that gets in the heads of opposing players. This was perfectly on display in the final stretch.
Jokic was 0-for-3 in regulation after Gibson started guarding him.
Gibson might have made the play of the season when Jokic pulled up from the corner with 2.0 seconds left. Gibson got his hand on the ball as Jokic went up for the shot and was credited with the block. This was an incredibly risky play. The margin of error of Gibson hitting the ball or Jokic’s hand was slim. Sending Jokic to the line to win the game would have been brutal, but if you trust anyone to trust himself in that situation, it’s Gibson.
This gave the Timberwolves one more shot to win the game. Jamal Crawford missed a 31-foot 3-pointer.
To overtime we go.
If it felt like the second half of the game was rocky, the start of overtime was even more so. The Timberwolves and Nuggets had just two combined buckets 2 minutes and 20 seconds into overtime. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Denver’s shot was a 3-pointer and the Nuggets had a 104-103 lead.
Butler hit two free-throws after being fouled by Wilson Chandler. Ten seconds later, Paul Millsap hit a shot to put the Nuggets back up.
In what was half-luck, half-skill, Teague hit a circus-like floater shot with the shot clock expiring to give the Timberwolves a 107-106 lead with 1:19 left in OT.
Jokic missed a bunny, his second miss of overtime with Gibson still guarding him. Butler would hit two more free-throws and Wiggins hit two with 14 seconds left, putting the ice on the cake for the Timberwolves and their first postseason appearance since 2004.
“I was cool, I was confident,” Wiggins said after the game. “I felt like I’m pretty good at making decisions and shots down the stretch when needed, so I went to the line confident.”
It was a moment of joy and celebration for the Timberwolves, but also relief for a fanbase that has stayed so loyal to its team over the years.
Towns didn’t hide his emotions after the game. While he wasn’t in Minnesota for the drought, he was now the face of the franchise and the player so many fans put their faith in. And he certainly delivered, finishing with 26 points and 14 rebounds in the biggest game of his career.
“There was a lot of emotion,” Towns said after the game. “I was just talking to our security guy and I was telling him that my parents were crying, everyone was really excited. I’m excited but it’s hard to adjust to pure excitement right away because in game mode you always feel like there’s another 30 seconds… I’ll probably fall asleep tonight and wake up in the middle of the night and start crying because it will hit me what happened.”
This will forever be a Timberwolves classic and an NBA classic for that matter. The saying “every game counts!” is one we’ve all heard growing up in sports. It turns out, some of these sayings are indeed true, even in an 82-game season.
One fanbase was full of joy. One felt empty.
While things may have gone awry for the Timberwolves the following season, you can never take away Game 82 from this fanbase.
Fox Sports North is replaying Game 82 on Tuesday, Apr. 7, 2020 at 7 p.m. CT.