MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Jimmy Butler scored 31 points, Karl-Anthony Towns had 26 points and 14 rebounds and the Minnesota Timberwolves ended the NBA’s longest-running playoff drought, beating the Denver Nuggets 112-106 in overtime Wednesday night in the first final-day play-in game in the league in 21 years.
When the final horn blew, the capacity and white-towel-waving crowd at Target Center stood to soak in Minnesota’s first postseason appearance since 2004. Butler flashed a smile of relief as he hugged his teammates and confetti fluttered above the floor. The fans chanted “MVP! “MVP!” as Butler conducted a postgame interview.
Jokic locked in a classic big man battled with Towns, finishing with 35 points and 10 rebounds, but he missed six of his last eight shots after the third quarter as Denver’s late push fell a few points short.
Now it’s the Timberwolves who are moving on to play, gulp, the NBA-best Houston Rockets in the first round.
Will Barton, who had 24 points, made a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock for Denver’s first lead, 104-103, since midway through the first quarter. After Taj Gibson hounded Jokic to force an air-balled 3-point try, Jeff Teague swished a floater with 1:19 left in overtime to put the Wolves back in front for good.
Andrew Wiggins sank two foul shots with 15 seconds remaining to finish with 18 points, and the Wolves were finally on their way to a celebration more than a decade in the making.
The Wolves were ahead by as many as 10 points in the second quarter and took a 99-91 lead on Teague’s 3-pointer with 4:26 left, but just like with this whole regular season the Nuggets just wouldn’t go away.
Jokic answered with a 3-pointer, Butler missed both of his free throws, and back-to-back jumpers, the last one from 3-point range, by Murray tied it. Butler put the Wolves back in front with a jumper, but he missed twice more from the floor in the final two minutes. Murray’s off-balance bank shot tied it at 101, and Gibson’s defense saved the Wolves down the stretch.
He forced Jokic into the baseline for a forced miss layup and then stripped the ball from him in the corner to give the Wolves the ball back with 1.6 seconds remaining in regulation. Jamal Crawford’s heave from just inside half court was on line but fell short.
The Nuggets won six straight games to get to this point, including a 100-96 decision in Denver last week that was the last time the Wolves played without Butler, and went 23-12 over their previous 35 contests.
The Wolves, who were 8-9 while Butler healed from a meniscus injury in his right knee, were in this position thanks in part to eight losses to the seven teams in the league this season that finished with fewer than 30 wins.
The Twin Cities were treated to quite the sports extravaganza, with the Minnesota Wild starting the NHL playoffs against the Winnipeg Jets in a game that started an hour earlier. The Minnesota Twins joined the fun, too, with a game-ending home run in the ninth inning to beat the defending World Series champion Houston Astros across the street. Not since Flip Saunders, Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell comprised the main cast in 2004 was the downtown arena this alive.
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Gibson played through a sore neck that forced him out of the last game in the first quarter, finishing with eight points in 35 minutes. Butler logged 42 minutes after playing 23 minutes apiece in his previous two games. Gary Harris had 10 points in 21 minutes for the Nuggets, his second game back from a sprained right knee.
“Like Apollo Creed said, there’s no tomorrow,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said.
The game marked only the third time since the NBA’s current 16-team format began in 1984 that two teams met on the last day of the regular season with the winner qualifying for the playoffs and the loser being eliminated. Washington beat Cleveland in 1997 and Denver beat Sacramento in 1995 to claim the final spots.
With the loss, the Nuggets finished last in the Northwest Division, a mere three games out of first. This was the first time in 14 seasons since the NBA realigned into six divisions of five times apiece that the last-place team was less than 11 games behind the leader.
Nuggets: Jokic posted his seventh 30-point game of the season, three of those in the last six games. … Wilson Chandler went scoreless in 48 minutes. … The Nuggets had 15 turnovers, turning into 24 points for the Wolves.
Timberwolves: Towns finished the season with 68 double-doubles, the most in the NBA. His streak of 246 consecutive games played, every contest of his career, is the longest current run in the league. … This was the 16th sellout crowd for the Wolves, their most since the 1991-92 season.
The Wolves will start the first round in Houston, on either Saturday or Sunday.
By DAVE CAMPBELL
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