The best game the Timberwolves played in Target Center came on May 19, 2004, an 83-80 victory over Sacramento in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals.
As the score indicates, it wasn’t the best because of shotmaking or slick play. It was the best because of the remarkable effort put forth by the noble veterans on both teams — a fierce 48 minutes that had the crowd of 19,944 in a full-throated frenzy throughout that Wednesday.
That was the last time the Wolves had played a game in which the stakes were so cut-and-dry: Win and you keep playing, lose and start planning a vacation.
Kevin Garnett had sounded the battle cry for that game by talking of the armaments that he planned to bring with him to take on the Kings. He received some heat from do-gooders over these remarks, but he also backed up those colorful words with a game for the ages:
Thirty-two points, 21 rebounds, and the usual magnificent defense that contributed mightily to the modest but hard-earned point totals.
On another Wednesday, in the middle of the longest, most determined hold on Minnesota that a winter can offer, the Wolves finally had another one of those games: Win and go on, lose and go away.
Obviously, the stakes were far less than in May 2004, with that victory over the Kings sending the Wolves to their only Western Conference final, against Kobe, Shaq and the L.A. Lakers.
This time, the Wolves and visiting Denver were playing the final game of the regular season to advance to the playoffs for a probable quick elimination against Houston, the No. 1 seed in the West.
When you have been away from the playoffs for 14 straight years, there was a desperate need for the Wolves to win to finally give the customers something over which to scream — to bring a satisfying end to a wild evening in which the sellout crowd (18,978 announced) saw the wrenching brand of entertainment the NBA has to offer.
Again, it wasn’t the best you will find for crisp play and certainly not for defense, but it had remarkable effort, both by noble veterans and rising superstars, and fierceness that put the fans in a full-throated frenzy, this time for 53 minutes.
You want heroes? Nikola Jokic, the 7-foot center from Serbia, was ridiculous as he flipped the ball from above his towering frame for 14 field goals (including four threes) and scored 35 points.
He is something, as are Will Barton and Jamal Murray, the young guards to go with veterans Paul Millsap and Gary Harris. The Nuggets came in on a six-game winning streak and playing much better basketball down the stretch than the Wolves.
As for the hometowners, Karl-Anthony Towns was getting 26 as he went at it with Jokic and Millsap, and Jimmy Butler, with 31 on his surgically repaired knee, and then there was Taj Gibson, the veteran forward.
Gibson’s neck was extra sore after the Lakers’ Julius Randle landed on him last week, and it was iffy as to whether he would be able to play. Gibson wound up fighting Jokic for every inch of real estate in the fourth quarter and overtime.
He slapped the ball away from Jokic with 1.6 seconds left in regulation, getting the Wolves to OT. He stayed after him through those five minutes and, finally, it was Wolves 112, Nuggets 106.
“They gave me the right kind of drugs to handle the pain,” Gibson said.
From “iffy” to playing 35 minutes, most of them against Jokic. Did he expect that?
“It’s Thibs [Tom Thibodeau],” he said. “You have to be ready for anything.”
Towns had a mass of reporters around him a half-hour after the game and was asked about his matchup with Jokic — already terrific, and bound to get better as the two giants stay in the same division.
“That’s a great team, a great organization, and I’ll be going against him in the years ahead,” said Towns, not interested in praising Jokic after the lumps they put on one another on this night.
There was another hero in the oft-vilified Andrew Wiggins: After a lousy year at the free-throw line, he went there and made a pair to make it 110-106 with 14.6 seconds left in overtime.
“Those were big time,” Gibson said. “And you should have heard the trash talking Denver was laying on him during that little delay before he shot them. It wasn’t nice.”
Gibson wasn’t protesting. On nights like Wednesday, the NBA isn’t nice. It’s fierce.