Anyone who thinks just getting to the playoffs doesn’t matter clearly wasn’t watching Jamal Crawford on Wednesday night. With the eighth seed in the Western Conference on the line and the Timberwolves and Nuggets trading blows in overtime, the 38-year-old stood among his young teammates on the sideline and clutched an orange muscle-roller stick as if it were prayer beads. Crawford has been in the NBA for 18 years. He completed his fourth and final season in Chicago six years before Tom Thibodeau arrived in town. The veteran guard has seen nearly all the league has to offer, yet an almost-two-decade backlog of experience couldn’t dampen his excitement when Jamal Murray’s 3-pointer clanked off the rim and bounced out of bounds, sending Minnesota to the playoffs.
“I was thinking on the floor: There’s no feeling you could pay for to feel like this,” Crawford said in the locker room after the 112-106 win, setting up a first-round matchup against the top-seeded Rockets. “It’s just unbelievable.”
Crawford’s farewell season with the Bulls came in 2004. That also happens to be the last time the Timberwolves made the postseason. The Wolves’ play-in game against Denver marked the franchise’s most relevant moment in 14 years, and there was no way to mistake that Wednesday. Every seat in the Target Center was full.
The back-and-forth buckets from both teams down the stretch brought a mixture of elation and creeping dread that Twin Cities sports fans have come to know well. After Jeff Teague’s 3-pointer from the wing gave the Wolves a 99-91 lead with 4:26 remaining, a fan in a navy henley and ripped black jeans behind Minnesota’s bench spread his arms and looked skyward, as if thanking someone—anyone—for what was transpiring. When Icona Pop’s “I Don’t Care” began blaring from the speakers during the ensuing timeout, he started jumping up and down like a 6-year-old on his birthday. A few minutes later, after a Murray stepback 3 tied the game at 99, pounding music that had felt so right just moments ago suddenly seemed out of place. Then Andrew Wiggins sunk two game-sealing free throws in overtime, a wave of ecstasy rippled through the arena, and the crowd let out a collective roar that was a decade and a half in the making.
What was a cathartic night for Minnesota’s fans also proved to be an informative one for its young roster. The Timberwolves are lined with veterans well-versed in the NBA playoffs, but their franchise identity is still linked to the pups Thibodeau inherited when he took over as head coach in 2016. Much of Crawford’s joy after the win came from seeing Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns get their first taste of high-stakes basketball—their first chance to experience a feeling that they’ll hopefully come to know intimately. “To see how they’ve grown … tonight prepared them,” Crawford said. “Tonight prepared them for the playoffs.”
Many of the faces on these Timberwolves are the same ones that defined basketball in Chicago for years. Thibodeau, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Derrick Rose have shared plenty of indelible on-court moments. Yet watching the Wolves fight for their playoff lives, only echoes of those Bulls teams remain.
Early in the first quarter against the Nuggets, Butler scored or assisted three straight buckets, prompting Denver coach Mike Malone to call a timeout and stoke the crowd for the first time of the night. As Butler caught his breath in the middle of the bench, Rose sat three chairs down with his shooting shirt on, using a muscle roller on his calves and sampling smelling salts. Butler’s and Rose’s trajectories as superstars diverged long ago, but never have they been this far apart in standing.
The hallmark defense of Thibodeau’s best days in Chicago is nowhere to be found in Minnesota. The coach’s 2017-18 team finished 23rd in defensive rating during the regular season, and each time the Wolves seemed poised to break open Wednesday’s game, Denver found an easy bucket to stop the bleeding. As Minnesota extended its lead to 44-37 and chants of DE-FENSE! rang out, Nuggets forward Paul Millsap casually made his way into the paint and drilled a short jumper. With the Wolves, that cheer is more suggestion than demand.
There were reminders, though, of why Thibodeau chased his favorite veterans while trying to remake the Timberwolves—and why it’s tough to blame him for wanting to put the band back together. In Butler’s third game back after missing more than a month of action while rehabbing from meniscus surgery, he was far from 100 percent and nowhere near the minutes-eating machine he’s been for much of his career. He was knocked to the ground as he took the ball hard to the rim in the second quarter, and lifting his body off the court looked like a chore. But with the Wolves seeking to ice the game late, Thibs called Butler’s number on a pick-and-roll with Teague, and his star had enough in the tank to draw a foul, hit a free throw, and extend Minnesota’s advantage to 108-106.
Some vintage Gibson was also on display during the game’s most critical moments. On Denver’s final possession of regulation, Nuggets center Nikola Jokic ran down a series of screens on the baseline as Gibson did all that he could to keep pace. The 6-foot-10 Serbian had torched the Wolves for most of the night, racking up 35 points (on 14-of-25 shooting) and 10 rebounds. Yet Gibson stayed in Jokic’s hip pocket across the entire court, and as Jokic pulled up from the corner, the 32-year-old forward stripped the ball and then managed to corral possession with his feet inbounds—the equivalent of a 6-foot-9 cornerback tapping his toes along the sideline.
Gibson came into the game nursing an injured neck, and there were doubts about whether he’d be able to play. Earlier that day Thibodeau asked his veteran if he was ready to go. “He knows me,” Gibson said in the locker room, recalling the exchange. “He doesn’t have to question where my heart is. If I can play, I’m going to play. I understand it’s big for the city. I understand it’s big for our young guys. We worked hard all year. I wasn’t missing this game no matter what. [And] they gave me some good drugs.”
After spending five years together in Chicago and another season at each other’s side in Minnesota, Gibson and Thibodeau do know each other. They understand the weight of postseason basketball, and how it can shape franchises that’ve gone a long time without experiencing those moments. This time around is different, though, and Gibson gets that. Even if the Wolves aren’t Finals contenders, there’s value in the opportunity that Wednesday night afforded.
“It’s a lot different because we’ve got a group of young guys who’ve never been to the playoffs,” Gibson said. “No matter how many times you tell them, ‘The playoffs are [different],’ and you preach the playoffs all year, you never really know what the atmosphere is like until you get there.”
When Wiggins stepped to the free throw line with 14.6 seconds left and the Timberwolves clinging to a 108-106 lead, Butler approached him with words of encouragement. “I was trying to talk to him,” Butler said. “I said, ‘Wig, man, you can do this.’ And he told me to move.”
After the game, Wiggins couldn’t remember what Butler was saying. At the time of that interaction, he was already fixated on the rim. The 23-year-old had his share of trials at the stripe this season, shooting a career-low 64.3 percent after three straight years of hitting at least 76 percent of his attempts. Yet in the most pressure-packed moment of his NBA career, Wiggins nailed both free throws to salt the game away. Butler described the shots as “the biggest of [Wiggins’s] career.”
“Everything [felt different],” Wiggins said. “The crowd, the momentum going up the floor, the physicality. Every little mistake was win or go home. Us and Denver were playing for our lives, every possession.”
From the tip, it was obvious that Towns also sensed the magnitude of what was unfolding. On Minnesota’s opening possession, he followed a missed hook shot with a made putback, letting out a scream typically reserved for game winners. “He knew what was at stake,” Butler said. “He was ready to go. You didn’t need to tell him anything before the game.” Now he’ll need to carry that intensity into his first true playoffs series, against a Houston team that won a league-high 65 games, has the presumptive MVP, and is widely considered the title favorite.
Minnesota reached this moment in large part because of how the trade for Butler last summer transformed the franchise. Much like Chicago did before, the city has embraced him as its newest star. Chants of M-V-P rained down each time Butler stepped to the free throw line, even as players on the bench urged the crowd to quiet down. But the Wolves’ promise, and the reason this group’s ceiling surpasses that of the Butler-led squads from the last years of Thibodeau’s Bulls tenure, lies in what its young core can become. Wiggins had 18 points on 5-of-9 shooting against the Nuggets, while Towns tallied 26 points and 14 rebounds and showed off every facet of his game. As the Wolves zipped the ball around the perimeter midway through the second quarter, Towns fooled Jokic with a shot fake, took two dribbles, and elevated for a fully cocked dunk usually reserved for LeBron James. The Timberwolves may struggle to keep opponents from scoring, but there are plenty of stretches where they’ll put up points at will.
Watching the interplay between Towns and Butler, and the smiles each had at the final buzzer, was a glimpse into what’s yet to come in Minnesota. The franchise’s 14-year playoff drought is over; no matter what happens against Houston, the next chapter has officially begun.
“This is the goal we wanted,” Butler said. “No matter what seed, we wanted to be in the playoffs. We wanted to compete.”