Sputtering into the postseason was no way for the Denver Nuggets to end their six-year playoff drought.
Nikola Jokic scored 29 points and had a key strip and two clutch free throws in the closing seconds and the Nuggets pulled out a 99-95 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night that secured the No. 2 seed in the West.
“We didn’t give up,” Jokic told the crowd after the Nuggets pulled out the improbable win by scoring the game’s final 15 points. That set up a first-round playoff series with the seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs, instead of sixth-seeded Oklahoma City.
“I just think that starting group realized what was at stake and fought to get that No. 2 seed,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “It was great to see them play that way. Obviously, moving forward, we can’t wait until the last three or four minutes. But it was a hell of a win, and a hell of a way to close out the regular season.”
The Nuggets were in danger of losing for the fifth time in their last seven games and falling to the No. 3 seed when they found themselves trailing by 11 with four minutes to go.
The Timberwolves missed their last eight shots and the Nuggets scored on seven possessions.
“They kept coming,” said Andrew Wiggins, who led Minnesota with 25 points. “We had the lead. I thought we had the game.”
Apparently, so did the Nuggets.
“Maybe we just woke up at that time,” Jokic said. “I don’t know. Maybe we thought we were going to lose.”
The comeback gave the Nuggets a measure of momentum heading into their first playoff series since 2012-13.
Jamal Murray scored 17 points, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with 31 seconds left that put Denver up 96-95. Jokic stripped Wiggins and then sank two free throws for a three-point cushion.
Wiggins’ 3-pointer to tie it hit the front of the rim and the Nuggets got the ball back. Paul Millsap was fouled at the other end with 4.2 seconds remaining. He sank his first free throw and missed his second, but teammate Will Barton corralled the rebound and dribbled out the clock.
Gorgui Dieng added 18 points for the Timberwolves backups and rookie Cameron Reynolds scored a career-best 17 points, including a 3-pointer that put Minnesota ahead 95-84 with 4:01 left.
They wouldn’t score again.
The Nuggets know won’t get away with waiting until the end to turn up the energy and effort against the Spurs and coach Gregg Popovich.
“You could tell it was the 82nd game of the year,” Torrey Craig said. “Guys were ready to get the playoffs going. I know for a fact it won’t be like that in the playoffs.”
Millsap, one of the only Nuggets with playoff experience, said the close call against lottery-bound Minnesota and its bevy of backups with nothing to lose was “a good test for us.”
“It’s a good preparation for us going into the playoffs,” Millsap said.
A year ago, these two teams met on the final day of the regular season with a lot more at stake. The Timberwolves won that one in overtime in the first final-day play-in game in the NBA in 21 years, ending a 14-year playoff absence and extending Denver’s drought to six seasons.
Then, All-Star Jimmy Butler demanded a trade that torpedoed the Timberwolves, who fell to 36-46 and reverted to also-ran status while the Nuggets put together a 54-28 breakout for their first trip to the playoffs since George Karl was their coach.
Timberwolves: Minnesota played without starters Karl Anthony-Towns (right knee), Jeff Teague (left foot) and Robert Covington (right knee) and key reserves Taj Gibson (left calf) and Derrick Rose (right elbow).
Nuggets: Denver finished an NBA-best 34-7 at home. … The Nuggets earned a No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs for the sixth time in their history and for the first time since 2008-09, when they last won a playoff series, 4-1 over the Mavericks in the conference semifinals. They have lost their last five playoff series. … Jokic also pulled down 14 rebounds.
Timberwolves: A search for a president, followed by decisions on GM Scott Layden and interim head coach Ryan Saunders.
Nuggets: A return to the playoffs after a six-year absence, facing the San Antonio Spurs in the first round.
NBA PLAYOFF GLANCE – SEEDS & SCHEDULES
The last spot in the NBA playoffs went to the Detroit Pistons.
Their reward: A series against MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.
The drama of the regular season went all the way to the very end of the regular season, with seven of the eight first-round playoff matchups not being clinched until the final night was in the books — the last three of them, out West, going down to literally the final moments.
The two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors will start their quest for a fourth title in five years against the Los Angeles Clippers.
“It’s not going to be as easy as people think it is,” Warriors star Kevin Durant said.
That’s the beauty of the playoffs. It’s not supposed to be easy.
First-round games in all eight series will be played starting Saturday and Sunday. The second round cannot begin until April 27 at the earliest, the conference finals couldn’t start before May 12 and the NBA Finals will start on May 30.
The only matchup in the NBA that was set before Wednesday night was No. 4 Boston against No. 5 Indiana.
Everything else, just like all the West matchups, fell into place during Game 82s on Wednesday.
The Bucks, the NBA’s top overall seed, play the Pistons. No. 2 Toronto draws No. 7 Orlando, with the Magic in the postseason for the first time since 2012. And No. 3 Philadelphia — a team wrapped in intrigue right now — will face No. 6 Brooklyn.
Joel Embiid played in only 10 of the 76ers’ 24 games since the All-Star break, and general manager Elton Brand told reporters Wednesday that “it is possible” the team’s best scorer and rebounder won’t be ready to start the playoffs.
Embiid isn’t the only injury situation that made headlines Wednesday: The Celtics announced that Marcus Smart will miss four to six weeks with an injury to his left oblique — a massive blow to Boston.
Portland rallied from 28 points down on Wednesday against Sacramento — which blew a lead that large for the second time this season.
Denver finished on a 15-0 run to beat Minnesota.
And with that, the West bracket was shaken up one last time before it was finally set.
Top-seeded Golden State will face the eighth-seeded Clippers, a matchup that was known after early results Wednesday. The rest went right down to the wire, with No. 2 Denver facing No. 7 San Antonio, No. 3 Portland getting No. 6 Oklahoma City and No. 4 Houston facing No. 5 Utah. It was a worst-case for Houston, which entered the season’s final night in place to finish second, third or fourth in the West.
The way the results fell means the Rockets, if they get past the Jazz, would likely see the Warriors in the second round — and not in the Western Conference finals. So there will be no rematch of last year’s title series out West, a tussle where the Rockets had a 3-2 series lead before Chris Paul’s hamstring balked and the Warriors went on to advance and reach the NBA Finals.
The Nuggets clinched the No. 2 seed with their big rally to top the Timberwolves. The Blazers got to the No. 3 spot with their wild comeback to beat the Kings. The combination of those results dropped Houston to the No. 4 seed.
Brooklyn at Philadelphia, 2:30 p.m.
Orlando at Toronto, 5 p.m.
L.A. Clippers at Golden State, 8 p.m.
San Antonio at Denver, 10:30 p.m.
Indiana at Boston, 1 p.m.
Oklahoma City at Portland, 3:30 p.m.
Detroit at Milwaukee, 7 p.m.
Utah at Houston, 9:30 p.m.