The 2003 Vikings started the season 6-0 and appeared destined for the playoffs behind the dynamic connection between Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss. They then proceeded to go 3-6 in their next nine games, many of the losses coming to teams with poor records, before ending the season with a matchup at 3-12 Arizona where the stakes were clear: Win and they could still salvage the playoffs. Lose and they were out.
The Vikings led 17-6 in the final two minutes. The woeful Cardinals scored, recovered an on-side kick … and then Nate Poole became etched in Minnesota infamy when he was shoved out of bounds while catching a 28-yard touchdown on 4th-and-25 as time expired. Final score: Cardinals 18, Vikings 17. The Vikings lost to all four of the teams in the NFL that tied for the league’s worst record (4-12) and missed the playoffs. It was as frustrating a pro sports season — from rise to fall, including dramatic gut punch finish — as I can remember around here.
And then the 2017-18 Timberwolves came along. They didn’t start off quite as hot as the Vikings, but they carried huge expectations after an offseason spent acquiring veterans — the most notable of which was Jimmy Butler. They never really caught fire, but they put together enough modest winning streaks to be comfortably in playoff position. Two-thirds of the way into the season, the Wolves were 34-22, good for fourth place in the Western Conference by three games over a crowded field.
The reasonable expectation at that point was this: Holding onto home-court advantage in the first round was quite possible, and making the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04 was almost guaranteed.
Then Butler was hurt, the rest of the West got hot and the Wolves kept losing games they should win. The ended up with four losses combined to the two very worst teams in the NBA — Memphis and Phoenix — and four more to the four worst teams in the East (Hawks, Magic, Bulls and Nets). That’s eight losses to teams that finished with fewer than 30 victories. Very 2003 Vikings-esque.
And so they found themselves in the same precarious position Wednesday as the 2003 Vikings in their final game: Win or stay home. The opponent, Denver, was of a higher quality and the stakes were even higher since the Nuggets, too, were in win-or-else mode.
And against Denver at Target Center, the Wolves took a seemingly comfortable 99-91 lead into the final five minutes of the game. That predictably disappeared, though, and they found themselves with this predicament: Tied 101, Denver ball, with a shot to win. The only real question at that moment was this: Who was going to be the Nuggets’ version of Nate Poole?
They went right up to the brink … and then the story changed. Taj Gibson made the defensive play of the year by swatting the ball away from Nikola Jokic in the closing seconds to force overtime. In overtime, fellow veteran Jeff Teague made a huge go-ahead basket. Butler scored seven points. Andrew Wiggins made two massive free throws. Final score: Wolves 112, Nuggets 106.
With a loss, the Wolves’ final record would have been 46-36 and their final winning percentage would have been .561. The 2003 Vikings were 9-7, a winning percentage of .563.
With a win, the Wolves beat the Las Vegas preseason over-under win total (set at 46.5, in case you were wondering if the folks out there are good at their jobs), made the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons and changed the narrative of their season and in some ways the franchise.
Yes, they only managed to get the No. 8 seed and a likely quick exit against powerhouse Houston — a fate they helped create by faltering down the stretch, but also a circumstance thrown at them because they got virtually no help from any other teams down the stretch. And yes, there will still be time for assessments of their various shortcomings when the offseason arrives.
But in the short-term, most of the talk is focused on how they came through when they had to — and how the long playoff drought is over. If Gibson doesn’t swat that ball away and Jokic drops in a dagger from the baseline … today is totally different.
Maybe it’s not fair that one play can do that, but it does. The narrative of the most recent Vikings season is much different than it would have been without Stefon Diggs’ miracle catch, and that team 15 years ago would be remembered much differently without Poole.
The narrative of the Wolves season now is this: It hasn’t always looked pretty or the way peopled imagined it would look, but it has been effective. The Wolves did not underachieve or overachieve. They properly achieved. In a normal year, or if Butler hadn’t been hurt, they likely would have a winnable first-round series.
As it is, at least they’re in.