Playoffs

With Timberwolves’ takedown of the champs, there’s a new favorite in the NBA (for now)

With Timberwolves' takedown of the champs, there's a new favorite in the NBA (for now)

DENVER — There’s no more waiting your turn in today’s NBA, no more requisite suffering a team must endure before reaching elite status.

Windows open and close quicker than anyone could expect, so if there’s an opportunity for the taking, you’d better take it.

And the Minnesota Timberwolves shook off nerves, first-half lethargy and even 20 years of generational ineptitude to not only cement themselves as a bonafide championship contender but to knock off the defending champion Denver Nuggets — on their home floor in a Game 7, and coming back from a 20-point deficit to do so.

The Nuggets know that feeling, they were the championship stalkers last spring, shaking off curses, shaking off injuries to eventually wrest the title away from the traditional NBA powers.

That ultimate feeling is the one the Timberwolves hope to have — which is also one of exhaustion, of frustration, the one that says as champion you must play another 82 games before starting the two-month journey in the hopes of reclaiming another title.

The Wolves want it now, without all the devastating heartbreak that comes with a championship road.

“It’s the playoffs, we lost last year,” said Karl-Anthony Towns, referencing last year’s first-round loss to these Nuggets.

“We lost the last two years,” said Anthony Edwards, a nod to their first-round loss to Memphis in 2022.

Towns continued, “How much more we gotta lose? We been losing for 20 years!”

Maybe, not much more.

It was the acquisition of Rudy Gobert that started this turnaround, an ambitious gambit at that. And Gobert's 9-1-1 jumper with the shot clock running down was the karmic moment that let everyone know it was Minny's night.

For the sixth straight year, the NBA will not have a repeat champion, and for the first time in modern NBA history, the NBA’s Final Four will not have a current or past Most Valuable Player in it.

The Timberwolves came into Ball Arena and won for the third time this series, advancing to the Western Conference finals with a 98-90 win Sunday night, the most unlikely of finales to the most unlikely of series.

The Timberwolves will have home-court advantage against the Dallas Mavericks when the series tips off Wednesday night.

It was all there, the flush look on the face of Nuggets coach Michael Malone, the fatigue dripping off his voice as if he’d played 48 minutes and suddenly couldn’t hit a shot.

It was all there, the jubilation in the room behind him as he spoke in his press conference — it was damn near cruel. Because it was the Timberwolves' locker room, giving all the hootin’ and hollering the moment surely deserved.

After initially being acerbic, Malone composed himself. These Timberwolves were built to beat these very Nuggets, and even though history says a team should suffer a little more before taking over, taking over in today’s league doesn’t last too long.

“I’m not an excuse maker, the better team won,” Malone said. “We played into June last year, a lot of basketball. We had to play our main guys through Game 82 to secure the second seed. The run last season, and coming back, mentally, emotionally, physically, our guys were gassed. They gave me everything I could ask for.”

Champions used to make a mockery out of challengers. From Magic to Isiah to Michael, to Shaq and Kobe, to Steph and KD, it became customary to repeat. If you won one, set your watch to be back there, same time next year in June.

Now, June belongs to no one. You can borrow June, but when the lease is up, you’re getting evicted abruptly — even if you have the best player in the world in Nikola Jokić, even if you have the best non-All Star in Jamal Murray.

“So much has been placed on their shoulders,” Malone said. “We’re expecting Nikola and Jamal to continue to pull rabbits out of their hats and somebody else gotta give them some help. We just struggled to make shots. They’re a really good defense.”

The duo carried the Nuggets as far as they could, especially Murray on his wounded calf. When Murray was going off, all was right with the world in the first half. He and Jokić combined for 69 of the Nuggets’ points, but they couldn’t find assistance anywhere else. Jokić had 34 with 19 rebounds, but it didn’t feel like a signature Jokić game.

And now, he must stew.

But despite the rousing comeback from the Timberwolves, holding the champions to 37 second-half points as they walked them down, looked them square in the eye and ran past them, it wasn’t about any team choking or coming up short.

This was about the best two teams in basketball engaging in a slugfest for two weeks, then delivering on a classic seventh game that brought all the emotions, fears and doubts they’re supposed to.

The halftime message from the Timberwolves' locker room was simple.

“Calm down,” Mike Conley said.

The 15-point halftime deficit was going to be the largest to overcome in Game 7 history. And the history of this series said comebacks weren’t to be had, with all the blowouts. But this is a different NBA, a different Minnesota team — and somewhere along the way, they came to the realization of what seemed obvious a week ago.

They’re the better team, if only they could handle the moments.

Then the moments came, in waves.

Edwards, in the midst of a 6-for-24 night, got loose in the open floor, guarding Murray, swiping and cajoling, like an annoying little brother, till he pried the ball away and got layups and dunks.

Then Karl-Anthony Towns, who admirably guarded Jokić and played good enough offense to keep the Wolves within striking distance — both doing everything he could and not doing too much at the same time — by using his size in going to the basket.

Malone knew he couldn’t let Edwards explode for a 40-ball, so he loaded up and dared Towns to beat them.

And, next thing, you look up and suddenly the game goes from 58-38 at the 10:50 mark to nine minutes later when the Timberwolves completed a 21-3 run that had everybody’s palms sweaty and facial cheeks tightened.

You have to play the percentages, both on the floor and on the balance sheet.

That’s what makes sustainability in today’s NBA so difficult to achieve, because you can’t truly add to a championship core while rewarding those players who brought you your ring. The Nuggets played only six guys heavy minutes, with Christian Braun playing 19 off the bench.

Usually teams add vets on the back end, willing to take smaller roles in the hopes of claiming a title, but in this brave new luxury tax threshold world, the mechanisms to finding a seventh or eighth man — or keeping the ones you have — feel impossible.

Malone vows the Nuggets will be back, and they should be expected to be. Tim Duncan’s Spurs never repeated, took some devastating losses along their journey, and even some embarrassing ones, yet came back for more — and it’s worth noting, Malone considers that stretch of five championships from 1999 to 2014 as a dynasty.

“You go from training camp all the way through and then it comes to an abrupt halt,” Malone said. “And that hurts. So use that feeling of motivation to come back a better player. We won it last year. Teams in the West, they regrouped, they retooled. How are we going to beat the champs? And teams got better.”

Bruce Brown, a key member of last year's run, is elsewhere, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will be due a raise following this season should he opt out.

Those two are grinders, and the Wolves took on that identity — especially Jaden McDaniels (23 points) and Edwards, who marveled at his 2-for-10 showing from 3 in a way only he can. But when the Wolves were roaring back, one of those triples closed the third quarter and made it a one-point game.

The last, after an open-court steal from Conley, essentially turned out the lights at Ball Arena by giving his team a 10-point lead with 3:07 left.

But there was Edwards, complimenting Towns next to him on the podium.

“He made all the right plays tonight. He only took 14 shots, always super efficient,” Edwards said. “He carried us tonight, every time we needed a bucket he was there for us. He made the right plays over and over again.”

Edwards is the unquestioned leader, even if he isn’t the seasoned vet — in fact, one of the reasons Gobert was brought to Minnesota was because Towns was more of an offensive player than on the other end.

And despite Edwards’ place in the hierarchy, Towns has worn the losing more than anyone wearing a Timberwolves jersey.

“I definitely had a moment,” Towns said. “I’ve waited nine years. I’ve talked about wanting to win, and doing something special for this organization and all the failures and things that didn’t materialize, and disappointment that comes with it. Even just for this moment, celebrate the wins. I’ve seen everything, seen it all.”

“(Expletive) them nine years,” Edwards said.

That might as well have been said in the locker room at halftime, and after the game.

The Wolves have shook off the old label and now wear a new one: As a favorite, but not for long.

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