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Nuggets-Wolves Showed That the NBA Needs a Play-in Round

Minnesota won ugly in OT, ending its 14-year playoff drought with inspired play from its young pups and clutch moments from its glue guy

Denver Nuggets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Game 82 battle for the Western Conference 8-seed sold me on the NBA needing a play-in round. Minnesota ended its 14-year postseason drought by squeezing out Denver, 112-106, in an evenly matched, and at the end, equally ugly, overtime game. It’s an end to the Nuggets’ inspiring six-game-win-streak attempt at the playoffs and a beginning (which will also, probably, soon come to an end) for the Wolves.

The Timberpups Are Growing Up

This game saw the most effort from Andrew Wiggins for four straight quarters all season. Not only was he up to his usual tricks on offense, but he also toiled and did the dirty work usually reserved for Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. Wiggins was a regular in rebounding scrums, he sprinted to his spots, he was aggressive defensively, and, at one point, he even drove and kicked instead of going full Iso Wigs. I gasped.

Karl-Anthony Towns also rocked regulation, though that’s been his prerogative since Butler went out six weeks ago for meniscus surgery. But it was evident that Tom Thibodeau wasn’t sold on trusting the Timberpups with so much on the line—like, say, his job security. Neither player was a factor in the overtime strategy. Instead, Minnesota leaned on Butler isolation plays and passing the rock around like no one wanted the big shot. Ball movement, but not for its intended purpose. Towns took one unsuccessful attempt in the extra period. Wiggins didn’t attempt a field goal but was sent to the line with 14.6 seconds left. The 23-year-old, in the middle of his worst free throw shooting season yet (64.4 percent before Wednesday), sunk both to make it a two-possession game.

Battle of the Bad Paint Defenses

The shame of both Mike Malone’s and Thibodeau’s seasons were their teams’ defenses, which were especially useless under the basket. Pitted against each other, the Nuggets’ turned out to be the worse of the two. Props to Towns for trying, but it’s more of an indictment on how little Nikola Jokic could do. Minnesota, which makes the fourth-most shots in the paint per game, had its way with Jokic whenever it wanted to down the court. The Wolves finished with a 52-40 advantage in points in the paint.

Jokic Giveth, Jokic Freezeth

Whatever Jokic gave up with his doughy defense, he spent the other half of the game making up for. The Joker finished with 35 points, including a 17-point third quarter. Malone deservedly gave him the keys for the final possession of regulation, which he turned over—

—right into the hands of Gibson, sending the game to overtime (after a missed Jamal Crawford heave). This season, the Nuggets turned the ball over more than any team in “clutch” moments—games within five points with five or fewer minutes left. But that wasn’t the worst coming for Jokic: In the extra period, Gibson, a glue-guy icon, did what neither Towns, nor Nemanja Bjelica, nor Gorgui Dieng could do: shut the 6-foot-10 Jokic down, holding Denver’s largest threat to zero points.