The Timberwolves’ 112-106 overtime victory against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday was one of the greatest regular-season games in franchise history.
The fact that it ensured the Wolves making the playoffs for the first time in 14 years meant there was no happier person at Target Center than owner Glen Taylor, who has been a model owner while trying to get his team back to the postseason for the first time since the 2003-2004 season.
“I’m very happy because it has been a long time, too long. I’m happy for myself but also very happy for our fans, who have been so great,” said Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune. “This was the awful hard way to get here, get into overtime, but it was a thriller for our fans.”
The Wolves did not make this one easy. Both teams played brilliantly at times and went back and forth with big runs that culminated with the Wolves’ 7-0 to finish overtime after trailing 106-105 with 2 minutes, 28 seconds remaining.
Jimmy Butler, playing in only his third game back after missing 17 games after knee surgery, led the team with 31 points. Taylor was asked if Butler’s leadership changed the team.
“It does — and not only what he does on the court — but I think just his leadership is important for our team,” Taylor said.
It was playoffs or bust for the Wolves after they brought in veterans Butler, Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague to join young stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, and they had to work all the way to the regular-season finale to achieve it.
“I think we had high expectations. We wanted to get into the playoffs,” Taylor said. “I think they can play better. I hope when they go into the playoffs that we even improve our play.”
When asked how he felt about the coaching job of Tom Thibodeau, Taylor kept it simple: “Thank goodness he got us into the playoffs,” he said.
The Wolves now draw a gigantic challenge in the top-seeded Houston Rockets, who beat them in all four games between the teams this season by an average of 15.8 points.
But this was a moment for celebrating for Taylor and a fan base that was loud and ready for such a big contest.
“What a wonderful crowd,” he said. “You talk about the sixth man on the floor and we had them there [Wednesday]. It just shows that this town will support a winning team. I would say that our fans have been just waiting for a winning season.”
The Wolves have it now after they equaled their fifth-best season in franchise history and reached the postseason after a classic at Target Center.
Kepler’s big moment
If the rumors were true that the Twins backed away from a trade with Tampa Bay for starting pitcher Chris Archer because the Rays wanted Max Kepler in the deal, the right fielder proved why it was a smart decision to veto that trade Wednesday.
Kepler finished 2-for-4 with three RBI, three runs scored and two homers, including a two-out, full-count, walk-off shot in the bottom of the ninth to lead the Twins past the defending World Series champion Houston Astros 9-8 at Target Field. His second homer also saved the Twins (6-4) from a potentially embarrassing loss, after Houston rallied from an 8-1 deficit to eventually tie the score in the ninth.
Kepler entered the game with only one homer, but he’s now hitting .281 with a .395 on-base percentage. He hit his third home run last season on May 13.
Is he trying to be more of a power hitter this season?
“Well, I have  to go [to match last year],” he said. “I’m working on that element every single day, day in and day out. But I wouldn’t consider myself any type of hitter. I like to grind.”
Kepler gave the Twins a great series-clinching victory early in a season that holds a lot of promise for the team and its young right fielder.
Great award for Ryan
The Vikings’ Dennis Ryan recently was given a great award when he was named the NFL equipment manager of the year. Ryan has been in that role since 1977 when he took over for Jim “Stubby” Eason.
Safety Harrison Smith told Vikings.com that when he first came to the team, former Vikings tackle Tim Irwin — who had coached Smith in youth football — told him to get in touch with Ryan.
“When I got here, Irwin told me to take care of Dennis, because Dennis took care of Irwin when he was here,” Smith said. “He’s been here for a long time and he’s done it the right way the entire time.”
Ryan, who will enter his 42nd season with the Vikings in 2018, said the job has been a big part of who he is as a person.
“I really enjoy my job,” he said. “I enjoy all the young players and being able to be a part of the organization and part of a team. I guess it’s just who I am and what I do. … I try to not overlook anything. I always make sure we’re on top of things.”
It’s great the league honored Ryan, one of the Vikings’ behind-the-scenes heroes.
Fleck sees better team
Coach P.J. Fleck was asked if this Gophers squad can be a better football team than last year, when they finished 5-7 and were outscored 70-0 by Northwestern and Wisconsin in their final two games.
“We’re going to keep getting better every single day and these guys are definitely walking off the field with the peace of mind knowing they’re getting better every day,” he said. “That is what we want to continue to do. I know this: We’re a better football team right now than we were last year at this point.”
The Gophers are moving up their spring game to Thursday night because of expected bad weekend weather. Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa State chose to cancel their spring games.
Fleck said the team can improve at every position, and he expects some of the incoming freshmen to contribute.
“We’re going to have to have help from them, 77 percent of our team are two-year players,” he said. “I have been in the program two years, those are the facts. We have to develop at a rapid rate as a coaching staff. That’s why our whole mantra this year is ‘Race to Maturity.’
“… These young players are going to have to play. They’re going to have to mature fast, but that really makes the future seem so bright. When you have so many young kids on your football team, the future is so bright for Gophers football.”