Perhaps the happiest moment in recent Timberwolves history occurred last April 11, when the team defeated Denver in overtime on the final day of the season in a game that would send one to the playoffs as the No. 8 seed, the other to the draft lottery.
The Wolves outlasted the Nuggets that night. There was a party at Target Center and there were hugs and smiles all around as the Wolves clinched their first playoff berth since 2004.
But since that night, the franchises have gone in different directions, with the Nuggets currently duking it out with the Warriors for the top seed in the Western Conference and the Wolves needing a victory over Denver at Target Center on Saturday to get back to .500 and continue an uphill climb toward the top eight.
What changed in less than a year?
“I would just say they figured it out,” Andrew Wiggins said.
In some ways, the Wolves can look at the Nuggets as a model. They didn’t make any splashy free-agent signings this past offseason and instead have seen improvements from the roster they had last season.
Their top five scorers are the same, but they have experienced a marked improvement from a young corps in 23-year-old center Nikola Jokic and 21-year-old guard Jamal Murray. It’s a path the Wolves will likely have to take, with two 23-year-olds in Karl-Anthony Towns and Wiggins signed to maximum deals.
“Confidence is key in this league,” Wolves forward Taj Gibson said. “When you’ve got confidence and everybody playing the way they can play, playing that role to a ‘T,’ everybody is still on the same page, that’s when it happens. Sometimes it takes a while.”
The Wolves are still waiting. Perhaps there’s also something to be said for organizational stability. As Gibson pointed out, the Nuggets haven’t had to endure the twists and turns the Wolves have had this season.
“Everybody tries to do the same thing. Everybody is basically chasing Golden State,” Gibson said. “Basically, [the Nuggets] are same kind of team [as the Wolves], just matured a little bit more. But they didn’t go through the kind of things we went through earlier in the year. We’re a team that’s been going through a lot of ups and down from losing our coach, losing players, trades, we’re banged up. ... That’s the NBA.”
The most obvious turbulence, which Gibson alluded to, was the early-season trade of Jimmy Butler and the January firing of head coach Tom Thibodeau. Butler played almost 41 minutes in that 112-106 overtime victory to clinch a playoff spot, and led the Wolves with 31 points.
To Wiggins, turbulence in an organization shouldn’t be a factor on the court.
“I feel like every team has ups and downs and nothing is going to be perfect in every organization, from trades to someone being fired and changes,” Wiggins said.
“That shouldn’t stop the players from playing on the court and buying into a system.”
The main driver behind the Nuggets’ success is Jokic, who is averaging 20.4 points and 10.4 rebounds. His raw numbers haven’t increased that much year over last year, but he “makes people around him better,” Wolves interim coach Ryan Saunders said.
“When teams are game-planning for Denver, you want to make sure he’s highlighted, underlined and put in bold because he’s that talented,” Saunders said.
According to coach Michael Malone, Jokic has also asserted himself late in close games. Jokic is shooting 52.9 percent in the clutch, defined by the NBA as a game with five or fewer minutes remaining and the score within five points. That number is up from 37.3 percent a season ago. Jokic had a chance to win last year’s tense game in the closing seconds of regulation but was stripped of the ball by Gibson.
“There were years where I’m saying as a coach, ‘We need a closer,’ ” Malone told the Denver Post.
“We got a lot of good young players, we need a closer, a guy that we can go to, to close games. … It started being Nikola down the end of the stretch. This year it’s clear. … He wants it, he has the confidence and he’s been delivering.”
The Wolves have had their moments this season, but they would love to be as consistent as Denver.
“That’s what we need to get to,” Wiggins said.
But it’s harder than it looks.