Still aware of all those ones that got away, the Timberwolves play their first playoff game since 2004 on Sunday, not as a No. 3 or 4 seed with home-court advantage. Instead, they’re placed eighth in the Western Conference against the top-seeded, 65-victory Houston Rockets.
This isn’t Maryland-Baltimore County over Virginia we’re talking about: An eighth seed has beaten a No. 1 five times — most recently in 2012, when Philadelphia beat Chicago — since the NBA playoffs expanded to the current format in 1984.
One can argue the Wolves would have opened the playoffs at Target Center if Jimmy Butler hadn’t gone down clutching his knee in February — in Houston, no less — or if they hadn’t lost games to Orlando, Atlanta, Brooklyn, Chicago, Memphis or Phoenix, among others.
But the way Wolves point guard Jeff Teague tells it, the Wolves are playing with house money now that they sent Denver home for the summer by winning Wednesday’s regular-season finale in overtime.
“This is the fun part,” Teague said. “All eyes are going to be on you playing the No. 1 seed. We don’t have nothing to lose, man. Go out there, play hard and try to shock the world.”
Teague knows of what he speaks.
His Atlanta Hawks were seeded eighth in 2014 and took No. 1 Indiana to seven games — including a missed chance to close out at home in Game 6 — before losing the series. The next season, the Hawks won 60 regular-season games and were the East’s top seed when they beat Brooklyn in six games on their way to getting swept by Cleveland in the conference finals.
Now Teague is on a team that lost by 18 points each of the first three times it played Houston this season and by nine when the teams last met a month ago at Target Center.
Teague knows there are few expectations his Wolves will beat an opponent that, at 65-17, owned the NBA’s best regular-season record. The Rockets have reached those heights by again launching more three-point shots than any team in the league — more than 42 per game — with a strategy particularly effective against the Wolves that proves three points are still worth more than two.
“We’re a talented group, we got a lot of talent on this team,” Teague said. “In the playoffs, you need someone who can make shots and take over games at times. I think we have a lot of people on this team who can take over games and have moments. It’s all about having fun now. There’s no pressure on us. We got in, eighth seed. I’ve been there and it’s a lot of fun. When you’re the eighth seed, I promise you it’s a lot of fun.”
The Rockets have made the playoffs 10 times in the 14 seasons since the Wolves last reached them and went all the way to the Western Conference finals led by Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. Houston advanced out of the first round three times in those first nine trips and reached the 2015 Western Conference finals before losing in five games to Golden State.
Now they are built to win it all, with one superstar, Chris Paul, acquired last June to help league MVP favorite James Harden. They’ve also beefed up defensively, surrounding the two guards with Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker and recently injured Luc Mbah a Moute.
“They’re a great team, best record in the league,” Wolves forward Andrew Wiggins said. “But we can beat anybody, and I believe that.”
The Wolves, meanwhile, haven’t had a winning record since 2004-05 until they finished this season 47-35, a 16-game improvement over last season’s 31 victories.
“We’re in, but I don’t want us to feel good about just being in,” Thibodeau said. “I want us to be ready.”
The play-in game against Denver and the upcoming best-of-seven playoff series with the Rockets are the very reasons Thibodeau went out and acquired veterans Butler, Teague, Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford last summer and, more recently, Derrick Rose to play alongside young stars Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. A favorite not long ago to earn home-court advantage to start the playoffs, the Wolves needed to play 53 minutes Wednesday just to reach the postseason.
“It’s a relief, but we’re not just happy to get in,” Gibson said. “We’re trying to win games and do positive things. But first things first. The first step is to make the playoffs, have a winning season, have our young guys overcome and play through adversity. You saw that [Wednesday]. We just got to keep moving along.
“Whatever happens is going to happen. As long as we play hard and learn from our mistakes, we’ll be all right.”
All season, Butler implored his teammates to play a complete game. On Wednesday, the Wolves did just that.
“Let’s keep it going,” Butler said. “It’s no different now. It’s basketball. There’s no pressure on us. We’ve just got to go out and hoop.”