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First playoff in 14 years

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Anthony L. Cuaycong

Courtside

If Tom Thibodeau was more animated than usual in the sidelines of the Timberwolves’ final regular season game yesterday, it was because he fully understood the stakes involved. He was coaching the 82nd game of an arduous 2017-2018 campaign that began brightly, got sidetracked by injuries to key players midway, and threatened to end on a sour note. Considering how much fanfare accompanied the acquisition of his old Bulls reliables Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, not to mention Jeff Teague to complete his First Five that boasted of homegrown talents Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, failure was not an option for him. He needed to win, and, in the process, ensure the first playoff appearance of the blue and green in 14 years.

Prior to the match, Thibodeau waxed optimistic, noting that erstwhile Most Valuable Player candidate Butler was back from a long period of convalescence. In noting that the four-time All-Star would not be under a minutes restriction, he likewise underscored the importance of claiming victory in front of 18,978 expectant fans. And so he did what he was wont to do under pressure: He tightened his rotation and rode his starters throughout regulation. And when the outcome couldn’t be decided in 48 minutes, he did the same in overtime: excluding offense-defense endgame substitutions, his starting unit burned rubber for the last 17 and a half minutes.

Not that Thibodeau didn’t have reason to go all out. On the contrary, his reputation as a turnaround artist was on the line; Year One with the Timberwolves didn’t go exactly as he planned, but he resolved to make significant strides in Year Two, especially with established veteran presence on the court backstopping youthful mainstays. And he was certainly rewarded: in the extra period, Butler had a bucket and five free throws to complement Teague’s timely runner that gave them the lead for good with a little over a minute left. Meanwhile, he found Towns going for 26, 14, and two in 47 minutes of work. Most crucially, he saw Wiggins calmly sink two from the charity stripe to ensure the triumph, capping an efficient 18-five-three line in 42 minutes. If nothing else, he had proof of a legitimate Big Three to rely on in the crunch.

Moving forward, the Timberwolves face an uphill climb in the playoffs. The first round will pit them against the league-leading Rockets, whom they couldn’t even come close to in four previous meetings this season. Then again, they have confidence borne of toughness and resolve in traditional Thibodeau fashion. And if they’ll go one and done, it won’t be because they didn’t try. In any case, they can celebrate a milestone; they no longer carry the burden of the longest postseason drought. They’ve succeeded in leaving behind a long trail of unfulfilled dreams. For once, a promise was not broken. For once, they carry on with pride.

 

Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.