The Timberwolves had just finished their morning shootaround Wednesday when coach Tom Thibodeau went up to forward Taj Gibson.
Yes or no?
“He told me he was from Brooklyn,” Thibodeau said.
OK, then. Despite a neck so painful he couldn’t finish Monday’s game, so painful Wednesday night that he had to turn his eyes to reporters asking questions rather than turn his head, Gibson played -- and contributed a major defensive stop in the final seconds of the fourth quarter that sent the game into overtime.
Especially when it mattered. Take a cursory look at the boxscore and you might think Gibson got the worse of the deal. With Gibson on him much of the night, Denver big man Nikola Jokic scored 35 points on 14-for-25 shooting. He hit seven of seven shots while scoring 17 third-quarter points.
But down the stretch of the Wolves’ playoff-clinching 112-106 overtime victory over the Nuggets? Gibson.
The veteran Thibodeau brought in — along with Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague — to provide toughness to the team. Gibson, the man Jamal Crawford calls the rock of the team.
When push came to shove Wednesday — and it certainly did — Gibson emerged the victor. He held Jokic to 2-for-6 shooting in the fourth quarter. In overtime he was 0-for-2.
Thanks to Gibson, with a neck that has been hurting going on a week.
“He knows me,” Gibson said of Thibodeau. “He knows he doesn’t have to question where my heart is going to be. If I can play I’m going to play.”
Especially late. With the score tied 101-101, Denver had the ball coming out of a timeout with 4.4 seconds left in regulation. The Nuggets got the ball to Jokic in the corner, but Gibson blocked his shot and got control of the ball.
“I was using my hands,” Gibson said. “Feeling him out the whole game. I felt like he made some tough shots on me. I wanted to stay with it. He swung the ball in front of me, I tried for a do-or-die play.”
In overtime, with the Wolves leading by a point with under a minute left, Gibson harassed Jokic into an errant shot and a shot clock violation.
“At first Taj was getting cooked,” Butler joked. “But when push came to shove, Taj locked up.”
Butler guts it out
In only his third game back from knee surgery, Butler played nearly 42 minutes. He hit 10 of 21 shots, scoring 31 points. Yes, he missed a couple of free throws late in regulation. But there is no question Butler willed the Wolves back into the playoffs.
But, just three games into his return from surgery, with a so-called “minutes guideline” in place? Forty-two minutes?
“I think I’m just tougher than everybody,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to. I didn’t want this team to lose. … At the end of the day, we won. We’re in the playoffs. We’re excited.”
Butler also had five rebounds, five assists and an assist.
“I mean, he’s an animal,” fellow All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns said. “I don’t think anyone has ever thought anything else of him. He’s a cyborg from another place. Built in the lab. And we’re very glad that we’ve got him.”
It was games like this that Butler was brought in to help win. Now, on to Houston.
“In the morning,” Butler said when asked when he would start looking at the Rockets. “We’re damn sure going to enjoy tonight.”
Well, maybe not his coach. Asked how long Thibodeau would celebrate before starting preparation, Butler said: “I don’t know if he’s going to sleep tonight. That’s the scary part.’’
Big free throws
After struggling, on and off, with his free throws all season, Andrew Wiggins hit the two biggest of his young career. With 14.6 seconds left, he put the Wolves up 110-106, essentially icing the game.
“I was trying to talk to him,” Butler said. “I was like, ‘Wiggs, I know you can do this.’ And he told me to move. He’s like, ‘Move!’ OK, excuse me. And he hit both of them. So, from now on? Stay in my lane.”
Said Wiggins: “I just wanted to shoot ’em. I knew I was going to knock ’em down.”