Timberwolves beat Nuggets to clinch playoff berth

The toughness that Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and the rest of the veterans brought to the Minnesota Timberwolves this season was on display from start to finish.

Finally, after a 14-year absence, the long-languishing franchise is back in the playoffs.

No team in the league had gone longer without a postseason appearance than the Timberwolves, who took Towns with the first overall pick in the 2015 draft and traded for Butler last summer to put themselves in position to return.

“I’ll probably fall asleep tonight and wake up in the middle of the night and start crying,” said Towns, who was 8 years old the last time the Wolves were in the playoffs. “It’ll hit me, what happened.”

The Nuggets won six in a row to force this elimination game, including a 100-96 decision in Denver last week that was the last time the Wolves (47-35) played without Butler, and went 23-12 over their previous 35 contests.

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Nikola Jokic locked in a classic big man battled with Towns, finishing with 35 points and 10 rebounds, but he missed six of his last eight shots after the third quarter as the valiant finish to this season fell just short. The Nuggets (46-36) haven’t made the playoffs in five years.

“I feel like our effort was outstanding. Theirs was too,” said Will Barton, who had 24 points but shot just 3 for 12 after halftime. “They just made the plays at the end. Give them credit.”

The game marked only the third time since the NBA’s current 16-team format began in 1984 that two teams met on the last day of the regular season with the winner qualifying for the playoffs and the loser being eliminated. Washington beat Cleveland in 1997 and Denver beat Sacramento in 1995 to claim the final spots.

The Wolves will start the first round in Houston, on either Saturday or Sunday.

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