MINNEAPOLIS (Minnesota) • Minnesota Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau was a proud man after watching his players fight to the death at the Target Centre on Wednesday.
He was proud of their efforts, and proud of them making the National Basketball Association (NBA) play-offs, and he claimed that it was only fitting that they clinched their spot right at the very end.
It took them the last game of the regular season, plus an additional five minutes of overtime, but Minnesota are finally back in the post-season after 14 years.
"I'm proud of the players," Thibodeau told ESPN after the Timberwolves knocked off the Denver Nuggets 112-106 in a thriller.
"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.
"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 (last) game and play our way in, because you want to earn things.
FRUITS OF OUR LABOUR
It means a lot. 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.
'' JIMMY BUTLER, Minnesota's All-Star swingman, on squeezing into the play-offs.
"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."
Jimmy Butler scored 31 points and Andrew Wiggins added 18, including two huge free throws with 14.6 seconds to play in overtime, as Minnesota (47-35) outlasted Denver (46-36) to clinch the last Western Conference play-off spot.
The Timberwolves earned the eighth seed in the West and will play top-seed Houston Rockets (65-17) in the first round of the play-offs.
"It means a lot," the All-Star swingman Butler said. "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 play-offs. We wanted to compete for a championship."
For Denver, who had won six straight games to force this winner-take-all contest, it was just too big an ask. The Nuggets have not played in the post-season since the 2012-13 season.
After trailing the entire second half, Denver pulled even at 99-99 on a Jamal Murray three-pointer with 2min 51sec to play.
Butler hit a jumper to push the Timberwolves back to the lead, but that basket was immediately answered with a layup by Murray with 1:59 remaining.
The two teams had three empty possessions each down the stretch, sending the contest into overtime. In the extra period, the crucial points came when Wiggins' free throws pushed the Timberwolves' lead to 110-106, before Butler finished off the Nuggets with two more free throws.
"We struggled in overtime with getting the shots that we wanted, stepping up and making big plays," Denver coach Michael Malone said.
"The offensive execution has to be a lot better in crunch time."
In another regular season finale, Russell Westbrook became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double in multiple seasons as his Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 137-123 to finish seventh in the West on 47-35.
The guard collected 20 rebounds to raise his season average to 10.05 per game. He also had six points and 19 assists against the Grizzlies to finish the season with averages of 25.4 and 10.3 respectively in those categories.