Brian Murphy: Timberwolves give fans hope by bouncing the bully
MINNEAPOLIS—Fourteen years is an eternity for catharsis, way too long for any professional fan base, let alone the forsaken Timberwolves faithful.
Minnesota recently ended the NBA's longest-running playoff drought with a Game 82 overtime victory, but all that did was buy the Wolves entry to the annual postseason party.
After one disheartening loss and another lopsided defeat to the relentless Rockets in Houston, their return to Target Center on Saturday night, April 21, foreshadowed more of an Irish wake than a franchise awakening.
Well, put the rosaries down and the kegs back on ice. Rumors of the Wolves' impending demise were unfounded. At least for one liberating night that was only a decade-and-a-half in the making.
The roar returned to First Avenue as Minnesota bopped their first-round bully in the nose with a convincing, essential and wholly entertaining 121-105 victory over Houston in front of 18,978 revelers.
The Wolves still face tremendously long odds in this best-of-seven series against the league's best and most prolific scoring team. But they gave their fans hope and hubris with a surprising blowout.
It was Minnesota's first playoff win since Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell were roving during Game 5 the 2004 Western Conference Finals, when texting on flip phones was the rage and our long, cold winter seemingly had just begun.
After Jimmy Butler buried a three-pointer to give Minnesota an 18-point lead with 5:37 remaining, delirious fans leaped to their feet, waved their white towels and engaged in full-throated wishful thinking.
"Wolves in six!"
"Wolves in six!"
This might very well turn out to be their only win of this series. You can bet the unfazed Rockets will regroup, readjust and provide an affirmative answer.
But for one refreshingly balmy spring night in downtown Minneapolis, the Wolves had more bite than the NBA's alpha dogs.
"It's what we needed," said guard Derrick Rose. "Tonight was fantastic. We're trying to bring something to this city that's never been. We're trying to start something new here."
It certainly took the edge off and makes Monday night's Game 4 relevant.
Falling behind 3-0 would have been a prelude to getting swept and left the Twin Cities crestfallen just as the market buried the Wild for another off-season of recrimination.
"Our fans were absolutely insane," said center Karl-Anthony Towns, who answered for his vanishing act in Houston.
"When you have fan support like that behind you, anything's possible. It's just humbling to see fans that elated and buy into us that much."
The Wolves were the aggressors, pushing the ball up the court and not backing down defensively. They matched the Rockets in long-range prowess. Both teams made 15 three-pointers, but the Wolves only needed 27 attempts compared to Houston's 41.
Their all-stars also came to play, rising to the moment instead of being swallowed by it.
Towns was a physical presence at both ends of the floor and finished with a double-double, 18 points and a game-high 16 rebounds.
Jimmy Butler attacked the Rockets' interior defense and was rewarded with 28 points.
Andrew Wiggins has been Minnesota's best all-around player this series, rebounding and reading the defense while trusting his instincts to feed his teammates the ball during key possessions.
Rose shaved a decade off his creaky body and came off the bench to pour in 10 in second-quarter, helping the Wolves open an 11-point lead.
The Rockets and superstar James Harden rallied to pull within 52-51 at halftime. But the Wolves erupted in the third quarter, led by point guard Jeff Teague, who led a 9-0 breakout.
His three-point play at the start and three-pointer on the other end had Teague chest thumping and stoking the sellout crowd into a frenzy.
"They're such a great team you have to play like that against them," said Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau. "You can't have a lull. You can't have a letdown. You have to play for 48 minutes. I thought our guys did a great job."
An interminable drought is finally over.
An intriguing series has just begun.