When Glen Taylor hired Tom Thibodeau in April 2016 to be Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations, he was hoping Thibodeau could carry out the plan of the late Flip Saunders to get the team back into the NBA playoffs.
Thibodeau accomplished that goal Wednesday, ending the longest active playoff drought in the league (13 seasons). Only the Los Angeles Clippers had a longer absence, missing the postseason for 15 seasons from 1977-91.
The fact that it took a 112-106 overtime victory at Target Center in a do-or-die game against the Denver Nuggets made the win that much sweeter.
“I’m proud of the players,” Thibodeau said. “I think the work they have put in and the growth that they’ve had over the year is something that I respect greatly. I told them that. I said, ‘You have earned the opportunity, now we have to act on it.’ They don’t give you wins. You have to go out there and earn it.
“I’m glad we had to go out there and win the game and play our way in, because you want to earn things. I think that is important. To look at where we are today from where we were two years ago, I think it has been great growth.”
Thibodeau spent his first season studying the squad he inherited, knowing he had two great young talents in forward Andrew Wiggins and center Karl-Anthony Towns. He also had a few other players and draft picks as bargaining chips.
When the 2016-17 season ended, Thibodeau moved three of those pieces in a draft-day deal, trading point guard Kris Dunn, shooting guard Zach LaVine and their first-round draft pick to Chicago for guard Jimmy Butler and the Bulls’ first-round pick.
Then over a few busy days in late June and early July, Thibodeau traded point guard Ricky Rubio to Utah for a 2018 first-round pick and signed forward Taj Gibson to a two-year contract and point guard Jeff Teague to a three-year deal. In October, he signed Wiggins to a five-year, $148 million maximum extension.
When the 2017-18 season started, this was officially Thibodeau’s squad.
“I think I knew coming in that the thing that was appealing to me was the challenge of it all,” he said. “There were some good young players here, but it was a franchise that had not won in a long time. Could you build it? That was the big question. So as I said, you lay your foundation the first year, you learn and you try to improve. That is what we have done.”
Thibodeau said Wednesday’s victory showed how much the team had improved over the course of the season. Contributions came from many players.
Towns recorded his league-leading 68th double-double with 26 points and 14 rebounds.
Butler finished with 31 points in 42 minutes and added five rebounds and five assists in his third game back after right knee surgery.
Teague had 17 points, including a huge basket late in overtime, and a game-high seven assists.
Wiggins hit the two biggest free throws of his life to put the Wolves up 110-106 with 14.6 seconds left in overtime and finished with 18 points, five rebounds and three assists.
And Gibson took on the challenge of guarding outstanding Nuggets center Nikola Jokic while also scoring eight points and grabbing six rebounds.
“I thought we had a number of guys just play real tough. That was what we needed,” Thibodeau said. “You can’t say enough about [Gibson]. He is banged up pretty good. He told me after the shootaround that he was from Brooklyn and he said he would be fine. That type of toughness is what we need to win.
“Jimmy doing what he did, coming off the injury, and to gut it out. We had everyone step up. I thought Karl was huge, Wig making those two big free throws and got some big rebounds for us when it really mattered, tough plays he made. That was great to see.”
Thoughts on Houston
Now that the Wolves have made the playoffs, they face the best team in the league in the Houston Rockets, who beat them four times this season.
Thibodeau broke down what he sees from the Rockets.
“When you look at the season they have had, the record [65-17] tells you how good they are,” he said. “They have a lot of weapons. We’re going to have to go in and play with great intensity on every play. But you have to play strong on both sides of the ball as well. You have to be able to score against them, to be able to defend. Obviously a team that has [guards] James Harden and Chris Paul, you have two superstars.
“Then you can’t overlook the rest of those guys, they star in their roles. You look at [center Clint] Capela and what he does, [forwards] PJ Tucker, [Trevor] Ariza, all of those guys, they’re just tough-minded. They have been around. We’re going to have to be ready. We know they’re going to shoot a lot of threes and try to get to the free-throw line. They’ve had a great season.”
Wiggins, Towns react
While this Wolves team has been defined by the additions of Butler, Teague and Gibson, there is no doubt the two players most identified with the franchise are Wiggins and Towns, the back-to-back No. 1 overall picks. They talked after Wednesday’s game about this moment in their careers.
What does it mean to make the playoffs?
Wiggins: “It means a lot, to us, to the organization, all of Minnesota. It means a lot.”
Towns: “The team deserved it. The city deserved it. The organization deserves it. It had been too long. I’m glad we got the job done.”
How about facing a team like Houston?
Wiggins: “We have nothing to lose, and I think we can beat anybody.”
Towns: “If we want to win that series, we have to be at our best. We have to go in there with a positive mind, great attitude, great mind-set, discipline at another level if we want to win.”
How would you describe your season?
Wiggins: “I mean, I got through it, and it was all about the bigger picture and now we’re in the playoffs.”
Towns: “I feel it’s a success, when you go to the playoffs. Wins and playoffs, I think, tell you about the success of the year. I feel very successful right now knowing we’re going to be in the playoffs.”