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Timberwolves, and their bigs, get last laugh against defending champion Nuggets and Nikola Jokić

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Timberwolves, and their bigs, get last laugh against defending champion Nuggets and Nikola Jokić

DENVER — That the Minnesota Timberwolves’ magic began and ended with Rudy Gobert was so hilariously apropos.

They were down 20 points against the defending champion Denver Nuggets with 22 minutes left to play when the NBA’s most divisive player sparked a turnaround for the ages.

History was on the Nuggets’ side, with teams that led at halftime by at least 15 points in Game 7s having gone 21-0 to that point (Indiana had joined that list against the Knicks earlier in the day). Charles Barkley was too, as the Hall of Famer and **** analyst was calling for Minnesota coach Chris Finch to

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But then Nikola Jokić lost Gobert on the left wing, and Karl-Anthony Towns found the French big man with a dump-off pass for

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with 9:51 left in the third quarter that most observers — yours truly included — thought very little of at the time.

A quick confession about something that happened on press row right around that time: For the first time in 20 years covering the Association, I prematurely booked my flight and hotel in the wrong city for the subsequent series because, well, it just felt like it was over. Off to Denver for Game 1 of the West Finals against Dallas on Wednesday.

Or … not.

By the time this slog of a game reached the 7:43 mark of the fourth quarter, when Gobert ******* that miraculous spinning fadeaway from the left side that was so unexpectedly Jokić-esque, the Timberwolves had gone on a 41-17 run that featured all that was so good about their resilient program.

The suffocating defense that had come to define them was back, with the Nuggets missing 15 of 21 shots during that span (Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. were a combined 1 of 8). Meanwhile, Minnesota turned the tide on the rebounding front in the process — the Wolves were outrebounded 29-18 in the first half, but had a 17-7 edge in that stretch.

“It showed us who we are, because the coaches believed in us even though at halftime — even in the third — we were down 20. They were like, ‘Just keep making runs. Keep making runs,’” said Anthony Edwards, who had just four points in the first half, but finished with 16 points (on 6 of 24 *********), eight rebounds, seven assists and a plus-11 mark. “And It showed us who we are, man. Once we really lock in on the defensive end — because offensively we played okay — but when we really lock in on the defensive end, man, we are a ***** of a team to beat.”

The Timberwolves offense that had sputtered all night was suddenly alive because of the defense. Nearly every player of significance pitched in for a 15-of-25 ********* effort that propelled the Timberwolves to their first West finals appearance since 2004 after their 98-90 win. But that shot by Gobert was the chef’s kiss, the kind of lasting image that should spawn a basketball section in the Louvre.

To hear Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns discuss it afterward, when they sat side-by-side at the news conference and hilariously recapped the way the game had turned around, was to understand the cohesion of personality and personnel that has played such a big part in their hoops story to this point.

“The Rudy Gobert turnaround was crazy,” Towns proclaimed.

“When Rudy hit the turnaround, I was like, ‘Yeah, we’ve probably got ‘em,” Edwards said with a laugh. “I know that’ll ***** the whole — that’ll ***** everything. Big shout-out to Big Ru’, man. He hit a turnaround on their ****.”

“On ****’s day, too,” said Towns, who has so impressively evolved from being the Timberwolves’ franchise centerpiece player to this selfless and capable No. 2 behind Edwards. “On ****’s day, too.”

It wasn’t just the Lord’s day, though. It was the 20-year anniversary of

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, the last time the franchise made it to the West finals. Kevin Garnett, who just so happened to turn 48 on Sunday as well, had famously promised
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to that Game 7 showdown against the Kings.

This decisive moment, more than anything, was a case of the Nuggets forgetting there are 48 minutes in an NBA game.

Murray came out swinging, scoring 24 of his 33 points in the first half after an atrocious Game 6 performance in which he’d missed 14 of 18 shots. If he was going to keep playing like that, and if Edwards was going to keep letting all those Nuggets double teams take the ball out of his hands when it mattered most, the rest was fait accompli. But then the redemptive arc took hold.

Towns, who so many had pegged as the odd man out when the Timberwolves’ salary cap sheet became a point of focus after the Gobert trade in the summer of 2022, carried the otherwise-awful Wolves offense throughout while doing a capable job guarding Jokić.

He hit 8 of 14 shots in all for 23 points, with 12 rebounds to boot, while posting a plus-10 mark. As Edwards walked with Towns to their ****** news conference, he made a bold statement that should be considered within the full context of the Nuggets environment.

“They didn’t have no answer for Karl,” Edwards said as he walked. “Karl’s the baddest big on the planet.”

Here in this Ball Arena, where Jokić has won three of the past four MVP awards and where Denver’s 2023 title broke a half-century championship drought for the franchise, Edwards decided to declare Towns’ place among the best bigs of them all.

Yet as salvation stories go, none of the Timberwolves’ can compare to Gobert. Even with his subpar first half that re-sparked the conversation about whether he is a winning player — a debate that has raged on for years now and led to his unwelcome distinction as the league’s most overrated player in the latest The Athletic player poll — Gobert found a way to have the last laugh.

He finished with 13 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and a plus-10 rating. Including the first round, when the Timberwolves swept the Phoenix Suns, Gobert now has a

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that is the best on the team (Edwards is second at plus-103). But sure, Chuck, tell us again how Gobert is unplayable when it matters most.

“I don’t watch those guys, so I don’t know what they talk about, but they have to talk about something,” Gobert said when asked about Barkley’s commentary. “But yeah, I’m glad (Timberwolves) coach (Chris Finch) didn’t listen to his advice.”

Of all the Timberwolves folks who represented their team’s willingness to ******, Finch might top the list. He tore his patellar tendon after a collision with Mike Conley in Game 4 of the first-round series against the Suns, then spent the second round sitting in the second row while assistant coach Micah Nori assumed the vast majority of the sideline duties.

But late in Game 7 against the Nuggets, when every possession ran the risk of deciding the game and every play call carried that same weight, Finch suddenly sprung up from his chair to ensure his voice was heard. He has been at it with this group since the middle of the 2020-21 season, when he left his job as a Toronto Raptors assistant coach to take over for the fired Ryan Saunders. Edwards was midway through his first season at that time, and the clear connection between the 22-year-old rising star and Finch has everything to do with the historic state of Timberwolves affairs currently unfolding.

“It starts with our head coach — Coach Finch,” Edwards said afterward. “He comes in every day, comes to work, gets there early. He’s  thinking of ways to get Ant and KAT open looks. He’s thinking of ways to get Mike and Rudy open looks. He’s thinking of ways to get Jaden (McDaniels) involved. He’s trying to keep Naz (Reid) in it to get him involved. He’s just a great coach. And he don’t sugarcoat anything.

“If Kat f—–’ up, he’s going to get on KAT. If I’m f—–’ up, he’s going to get on me. If Rudy f—–’ up, he going to get on anybody that’s messing up throughout the game, and I think that’s what makes him the best coach in the NBA, to me. Because no matter who it is, no matter how high up on the pole, he’s going to get on you from start to finish. It starts with the head of the snake, and he’s the head of our snake. We all look up to him, listen to him, and he (does) a great job of making sure we’re ready to go every night.”

Finch, who spent the the 2016-17 season in Denver as an associate head coach alongside the Nuggets’ Michael Malone, knows as well as any what this Game 7 win means.

“It’s a big moment for our club,” Finch said. “Everybody talks about the last 30 years (in Minnesota), which mean nothing to me. But it does mean a lot to a lot of people to see this team, (who) root for this team. The city is behind this team. And to beat a team like Denver on their home floor the way we did, of course it was going to mean a lot.”

(Photo of Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokić: AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post via Getty Images)

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Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets, NBA
#Timberwolves #bigs #laugh #defending #champion #Nuggets #Nikola #Jokić

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