Nikola Jokic scored 29 points and had a key strip in the closing seconds for the Denver Nuggets, who scored the game’s final 15 points in a 99-95 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night that secured the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
“We didn’t give up,” Jokic told the crowd after the Nuggets pulled out the improbable win to set up a first-round playoff series with the seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs, instead of sixth-seeded Oklahoma City.
The Nuggets are in the postseason for the first time in six years.
Jamal Murray added 17 points, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with 31 seconds left that put Denver up 96-95. Jokic stripped Andrew Wiggins, who led the Timberwolves with 25 points, and then sank two free throws for a three-point cushion.
Wiggins’ 3-pointer to tie it hit the front of the rim and the Nuggets got the ball back. Paul Millsap was fouled at the other end with 4.2 seconds remaining. He sank his first free throw and missed his second, but teammate Will Barton corralled the rebound and dribbled out the clock.
Gorgui Dieng added 18 points for the Timberwolves backups and rookie Cameron Reynolds scored a career-best 17 points, including a 3-pointer that put Minnesota ahead 95-84 with 4:01 left.
They wouldn’t score again.
Jokic also pulled down 14 rebounds one night after his worst game of the year, one in which he scored just two points before fouling out in 16 minutes in a loss at Utah.
A year ago, these two teams met on the final day of the regular season with a lot more at stake. The Timberwolves won that one in overtime in the first final-day play-in game in the NBA in 21 years, ending a 14-year playoff absence and extending Denver’s drought to six seasons.
Then, All-Star Jimmy Butler demanded a trade that torpedoed the Timberwolves, who fell to 36-46 and reverted to also-ran status while the Nuggets put together a 54-28 breakout for their first trip to the playoffs since 2012-13.
“Each one of our players deserves credit, because they’ve all bought in from Day 1,” Malone said. “And I think we’ve used that motivation of losing in Minneapolis last year Game 82 because coming up short two years in a row is really hard and it’s kind of motivated us to be the team we are right now.”
Timberwolves: Minnesota played without starters Karl Anthony-Towns (right knee), Jeff Teague (left foot) and Robert Covington (right knee) and key reserves Taj Gibson (left calf) and Derrick Rose (right elbow).
Nuggets: Denver finished an NBA-best 34-7 at home. … The Nuggets earned a No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs for the sixth time in their history and for the first time since 2008-09, when they last won a playoff series, 4-1 over the Mavericks in the conference semifinals. They have lost their last five playoff series.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
The Timberwolves will make hiring a new president of basketball operations their first offseason priority. The fates of general manager Scott Layden and interim head coach Ryan Saunders have yet to be decided. Tom Thibodeau, who was fired Jan. 6, held the dual role of president of basketball operations and head coach.
“It really does not change anything for me one bit,” Saunders said. “When I accepted this post in early January, I approached it as I’m the head coach until they tell me I’m not the head coach. And that’s how I continue to look at things moving forward.”
Timberwolves: A search for a president, followed by decisions on Layden and Saunders.
Nuggets: A return to the playoffs after a six-year absence, facing the San Antonio Spurs in the first round.