MINNEAPOLIS -- It took until the last game -- plus an additional five minutes of overtime -- but the Minnesota Timberwolves are back in the postseason after 14 years.
"I'm proud of the players," Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau said after his team knocked off the Denver Nuggets 112-106 in an overtime thriller Wednesday. "I think the work that they've put in and the growth that they've had over the year is something that I respect greatly, and I told them that today. I said, 'You've earned the opportunity. Now we have to act on it.' They don't give you wins. You have to go out there and earn it. I'm glad in some ways that we had to win the game and play our way in because you want to earn things. I think that's important. And to look at where we are today from where we were two years ago, I think it's been great growth."
The relief within the locker room was palpable after the game was over. The notoriously stubborn Thibodeau smiled with pride as he met with reporters. The players wore looks of relief and happiness while speaking to the media.
For Karl-Anthony Towns, the playoff berth was extra special because of a promise he made to former Timberwolves head coach Flip Saunders, who died in October 2015, right before Towns' rookie season began.
"It's a lot of emotions," Towns told ESPN. "It's a lot of a promise I made to Flip, and I'm glad that I was able to be part of this team that was able to bring Minnesota back to the playoffs. This city deserves it. Minneapolis deserves it, the state deserves it. I'm glad we were able to bring it back."
"It means a lot," Timberwolves All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler said after scoring 31 points. "Not only for the franchise but every guy in this locker room. We work so hard all season. This is the goal that we wanted. No matter what seed we were going to be, we wanted to be in the playoffs. We wanted to compete for a championship. Now it's all about going in there and [being] the first one to win four games."
The Timberwolves will head to Houston this weekend to face the top-seeded Rockets in the Western Conference quarterfinals.
While there were plenty of contributions up and down the roster, both Thibodeau and his players were quick to point out the defensive job that veteran power forward Taj Gibson did on young Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic down the stretch. Jokic finished with 35 points, but it was Gibson who made several key defensive stops at the end of regulation and in overtime to slow Jokic. The fact that Gibson produced for his team with a stiff neck in the biggest moment of the season was not lost on anyone.
"You can't say enough about him," Thibodeau said. "He's banged up pretty good. He told me after that shootaround that he's from Brooklyn, so he said he'd be fine. That type of toughness -- that's what you need to win."
Gibson was in some pain after the game but was happy to be able to help the rest of his less experienced teammates get over the playoff hump. There was never a doubt in his mind that he would play in the game after leaving Monday's win over the Memphis Grizzlies early.
"[Thibodeau] knows me," Gibson said. "He doesn't even have to question where my heart is going to be. If I can play, I'm going to play. I understand it's big for the city, I understand it's big for the organization. It's big for our young guys. We worked hard all year. I wasn't going to miss this game no matter what. They gave me some good drugs ... but I'm happy to be able to get that good win here."
The Timberwolves know they have an incredibly difficult task in front of them against the Rockets, but they are still trying to enjoy the moment. They know how much a playoff berth means to the city of Minneapolis, and they could feel the energy inside a nervous and raucous Target Center on Wednesday. The players also understand just how much the win meant to Thibodeau, who put the team together in his dual role of head coach and president of basketball operations. After all their years together, even Butler was a little surprised by Thibodeau's reaction after the game.
"He smiled," Butler said. "All in all, that just shows you. He came in here, he smiled, and then he started talking basketball, but he smiled first. It was a good sign."