DENVER – Karl-Anthony Towns grabbed the last rebound and suddenly became the centerpiece of what, for Timberwolves fans, had to be a fantastical scene.

The longest-tenured player on a team long known for failures and embarrassments cradled the ball as time ran out. His team had already prompted many fans of the defending champion Denver Nuggets to leave Ball Arena early. Now, a large contingent of Wolves fans was chanting, "Let's go Wolves," and the Wolves were indeed going to the Western Conference finals.

Towns stood at midcourt, thinking about his nine seasons in Minnesota, the blame and heartbreak and frustration, and how those thorny paths led to this. "I don't know if the cameras caught it," Towns said. "But I had a moment."

The Wolves' 98-90 victory in Game 7 of the conference semifinals instantly became the most impressive moment in franchise history, thanks, largely, to a player long blamed for franchise stagnation.

“I couldn't be more happy and proud of him. Because I think he's faced a lot of unfair criticism when it comes to the postseason.”
Chris Finch

The Wolves had advanced to one other conference finals, but that was as a No. 1 seed that had to survive a seventh game at home against a lesser opponent, the Sacramento Kings. This was a team that had not won a playoff series since that 2004 season, and they defeated the defending champs on the latter's home court, by overcoming a 20-point deficit and the weight of their own history.

Now the Wolves will have home-court advantage over a lesser seed in Dallas, meaning this well could become the first team in franchise history to reach the NBA Finals — especially if Towns continues to play like a superstar.

Long a symbol of Wolves underachievement — fairly or not — Towns in these playoffs has proved his worth.

He has guarded two of the greatest offensive players in NBA history, in Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokic. He played one of the best games of his career in Game 6 to extend this series to a finale, and in the finale, he was the Wolves' best player, even as their primary star, Anthony Edwards, almost shot them out of the game.

Towns finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block while often frustrating Jokic. He held the Wolves together until magic happened.

A turnaround jumper with the shot clock expiring from Rudy Gobert? Sure.

A late burst from sixth man Naz Reid that dwarfed the contributions of the Nuggets' proven stars? Who wouldn't have predicted that?

"I couldn't be more happy and proud of him," Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said of Towns. "Because I think he's faced a lot of unfair criticism when it comes to the postseason.

"The more you go through these things, the more at peace you are ... KAT was really special, especially in the second half. I think you see how at peace and happy he is."

If it had come to a vote among Wolves fans last summer, Towns would have been traded for just about anything.

Instead, Towns' improved defense became a major reason the Timberwolves became the NBA's best defensive team this season. His willingness and ability to play alongside Gobert, the defensive player of the year, gave the Wolves a size advantage over virtually every opponent.

Once known primarily for his outside shooting, Towns on Sunday excelled despite making just one of his six three-point attempts.

He became, in this series, Finch's rock.

As the game ended, the Nuggets looked exhausted. Wolves guard Mike Conley waved goodbye to the remaining Nuggets fans. Towns held the ball until the final buzzer, then began hugging his opponents.

He seems so much more mature now than he was even a year ago. First, he toned down his arguments with officials, winding up with just one technical foul this season. Then he returned from a knee injury and fit seamlessly into the team's offense.

Then came the playoffs, and the greatest moments of Towns' career.

"This was Timberwolves basketball," Towns said. "Timberwolves basketball at its finest."

He's the reason that no longer sounds like a joke.