7:00 PM EST – Line: Timberwolves -3.5, Over/Under: 212
On the final day of the Regular Season, there is a bonafide Play-In Game to decide the final spot in the Western Conference’s Playoff Picture as the Minnesota Timberwolves host the Denver Nuggets from Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Necessity can oftentimes breed success, and there’s no better time to make a run than over the final leg of the campaign, which is precisely what the Nuggets (46-35, T-8th in Western Conference) have done of late, going 13-7, stringing together six consecutive wins to set up tonight’s playoff with the Wolves. Then again, they had no other choice, for as their opponent tonight can attest, one brief poor run of form can result nearly falling out of the Standings altogether. During this stretch, Mike Malone’s charges have really turned up the heat of late, thanks in large part to their play on the defensive end of the court; in the month of April, Denver has relegated opponents to 104.4 Points (there lowest monthly average since October) on 43.6% Shooting from the Field, including 31.7% from beyond the Arc, while permitting 21.4 Assists and outrebounding them by an average margin of 3.2 Boards a Night. When we last saw them, they managed to keep their Playoff Hopes alive with a hard-fought 88-82 victory over the Trail Blazers, that was very much a bloodbath between division rivals. This one wasn’t for the faint of heart, folks, as both teams shot well below 40.0% from the Field, with the Nuggets shooting a moderately better 37.3% Overall, though the biggest difference came from the Charity Stripe, where the hosts knocked down 20-of-26 Free-Throws (76.9%), outscoring the visiting side by Seven Points, which played a large role in the Fourth Quarter in which they held a 22013 advantage. Will Barton (15.6 PTS, 45.3% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 4.1 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.6 BLK, 16.1 PER) led the way with Twenty-Two Points on 8-of-15 Shooting (53.3%), though the night belonged to Nikola Jokic (18.2 PTS, 49.7% FG, 39.2% 3FG, 10.7 REB, 6.1 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.8 BLK, 24.4 PER), who overcame a poor shooting night (5-of-14 FG, 35.7%) to record his second straight Triple-Double consisting of Fifteen Points, Twenty Rebounds, and Eleven Assists. The mammoth Serbian has been crucial in Denver’s current run, averaging 23.7 Points on 50.5% Shooting from the Floor, including 34.5% from Downtown, along with 13.3 Rebounds, 8.2 Assists, 1.7 Steals, and 1.5 Blocks over the last six outings, and should play a huge role in tonight’s meeting with Minnesota. In three contests with their Northwest Division Brethren, Jokic has posted averages of 20.0 Points, 9.7 Rebounds, and 5.7 Assists, despite shooting a disappointing 39.5% from the Field, though he certainly hasn’t had any problem getting to the Free-Throw Line; the Third-Year Center has calmly netted 22-of-24 Free-Throws (91.7%) in the Season Series. After falling in defeat in each of the first two meetings with the Wolves, Jokic and Co. finally took one back in a 100-96 victory last week, in which the Nuggets managed to fend off a late rally to secure a monumental victory. Malone’s troops overcame another poor shooting performance largely due to the Money Ball and the Charity Stripe, where they established a sizable advantage that compensated for the fact that they only made 39.3% of their Attempts Overall. The Home Side knocked down 11-of-36 Three-Pointers (30.6%), outscoring the Wolves by Fifteen Points, while also draining 19-of-22 Free-Throws (86.4%), besting the Visitors by Seven Points. While he didn’t register a Triple-Double, Jokic sure came close, totaling Sixteen Points, Fourteen Rebounds, and Nine Assists, while five other players scored in Double-Figures, Jamal Murray (16.7 PTS, 45.1% FG, 38.0% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.0 STL, 16.1 PER) and the ageless Devin Harris (8.4 PTS, 40.1% FG, 34.7% 3FG, 1.5 REB, 2.5 AST, 0.5 STL, 12.3 PER) accounted for a combined for Forty-Two Points on 14-of-27 Shooting (51.9%), including 8-of-15 from Three (53.3%). With a win tonight, the Nuggets will return to the Playoffs after a 4-Year Drought, serving as validation for the job that Malone has done since arriving in the Mile High City three years ago; progress can be particularly glacial in the Western Conference, but Malone and his Staff should be commended for the job they done in Denver, bringing a team was a dreadful 30-52 in 2014-15 to a potential 47-35 season.
Meanwhile, as big as tonight’s contest is for the Nuggets it’s significantly more important for the Timberwolves (46-35, T-8th in Western Conference) for a variety of reasons, none more so than the fact that they could finally put to rest the longest-standing Playoff Drought in the NBA, currently standing at Thirteen Years and counting. Minnesota has invested heavily over the past two years in turning this ship around, whether it was hiring Tom Thibodeau to be the Head Coach/Defacto General Manager, or acquiring a wealth of veteran players, including the likes of Jimmy Butler (22.0 PTS, 47.4% FG, 35.2% 3FG, 5.3 REB, 4.9 AST, 2.0 STL, 0.4 BLK, 23.6 PER), to help accelerate the maturation of young cornerstones such as Karl-Anthony Towns (21.2 PTS, 54.4% FG, 42.1% 3FG, 12.3 REB, 2.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.4 BLK, 24.9 PER) and Andrew Wiggins (17.7 PTS, 43.7% FG, 32.7% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.6 BLK, 13.0 PER). However, this has been a team that has struggled to maintain consistency, which again, in the Western Conference can be absolutely detrimental in climbing the rungs of the Playoff Ladder. With that said, Minnesota nonetheless appeared to have things figured out entering the All-Star Break, owning a 36-25 record placing them squarely in the Third Seed in the West, only to be dealt the cruel hand of injury as Butler went down with a knee injury that would sideline him for the next Sixteen Games. During that stretch, the Wolves have gone just 8-8, with the rest of the West passing them by. With Butler on the mend, Thibodeau’s charges have been outscored by the slimmest of margins (Minus-1.0 PPG), with their defense slumping greatly, yielding 48.0% Shooting, including 36.4% from Downtown, while getting outrebounded (Minus-0.3 RPG), and permitting 24.9 Assists a night. So is it any wonder that Butler’s return over the weekend was about the most welcoming sight in Minnesota since the city hosted the Super Bowl back in February? With the veteran Wingman back in the Rotation, the Timberwolves have stopped the bleeding, winning each of their last two outings heading into tonight’s contest, recording victories over the Los Angeles Lakers (113-96) and Memphis Grizzlies (113-94). Against Memphis, they got stronger as the game progressed, outscoring the Grizzlies 57-41 in the Second Half, including 30-19 in the Fourth Quarter alone, while shooting 48.3% from the Field, while bludgeoning the opposition on the Glass (52-35), particularly on the offensive end (18-10), dishing out Twenty-Seven Assists despite committing Seventeen Turnovers. Towns dominated, totaling Twenty-Four Points on 11-of-14 Shooting (78.6%), Eighteen Rebounds, Two Assists, and a Block, while Butler added another Fifteen Points in his second game back on the hardwood. He’ll need to brush that rust off quick, for in his two games since his return, the 4-Time All-Star has averaged 16.5 Points on 55.6% Shooting from the Field, along with 2.0 Rebounds, 2.0 Assists, and 3.5 Steals. Furthermore, his team is 2-0 against the Nuggets this season with Butler factoring heavily into the outcome, averaging 32.0 Points on 51.4% Shooting, including 40.0% from beyond the Arc, along with 3.0 Rebounds, and 4.5 Assists.