MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Timberwolves went big this season, getting Rudy Gobert for an against-the-grain pairing with Karl-Anthony Towns in a league increasingly revolving around outside shooting and small ball.
That’s how they got in the playoffs, in the last possible game.
Towns had 28 points and 11 rebounds, and the Timberwolves muscled and hustled their way past the Oklahoma City Thunder 120-95 to finish the play-in tournament on Friday night.
“We utilized our size. We did a great job of putting pressure on the paint and just doing what we do best,” Towns said. “Rudy was fantastic. He did a lot for us and really imposed his presence.”
Gobert had 21 points and 10 rebounds in his return from exile for swinging at teammate Kyle Anderson, and the Wolves filled out the NBA playoff bracket by seizing the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference with a near-perfect performance at the end of another harder-than-it-had-to-be season.
Anthony Edwards added 19 points and 10 rebounds for the Wolves, who had a 58-30 advantage in points in the paint. They will face No. 1 seed Denver in a best-of-seven series starting on Sunday night.
“We are in the standings, but I don’t consider us as an ‘8’ seed,” Gobert said, adding: “We know if we play the right way, there’s not a team in the league that we can’t beat.”
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led the Thunder with 22 points, going 12 for 12 from the free throw line but just 5 for 19 from the field. Jalen Williams and Lu Dort each scored 17 points.
“It’s been really fun this year. We kind of turned the corner a little bit,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
With their best defender Jaden McDaniels out with a broken hand – thanks to a wall he punched out of frustration in the final regular-season game shortly before Gobert took a swing at Anderson in an argument during a timeout – the Timberwolves put Nickiel Alexander-Walker in the starting lineup. He guarded his cousin, the dynamic Gilgeous-Alexander, at the suggestion of president of basketball operations Tim Connelly.
“He’s the reason we won,” Towns said. “There’s no other way to put it.”
Gilgeous-Alexander was slow to get going in the Thunder’s play-in tournament opener, too, before scoring 25 of his 32 points after halftime in the 113-108 win over New Orleans. This time, the NBA’s fourth-leading scorer picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter and then had to leave for treatment a few minutes later after Gobert accidentally elbowed him in the eye as he rebounded and dunked his own miss.
Towns had 24 points on 8-for-12 shooting in Minnesota’s 108-102 overtime loss in Los Angeles in the first play-in game on Tuesday, when the Wolves offense grinded to a woeful finish. This time, they took a much better blend of outside and inside shots with a constantly moving ball. Towns and Gobert going to work against the much-smaller Thunder, who played all season without No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren, the 7-foot-1 Minneapolis native who broke his foot in summer pro-am game.
Gobert was listed as questionable with a back injury that might have kept him out against the Lakers anyway to make his team-imposed suspension moot. He wore a wrap around his midsection when he was on the bench, but he found his groove in the second half.
After Mike Conley tracked down a loose ball in the corner midway through the fourth quarter, he threw a three-quarters-of-the-court baseball pass to Towns, whose cross-court feed set Gobert up for yet another dunk and a 109-80 lead that matched Minnesota’s biggest of the game.
“It was nice not to give back a lead, which we’ve done quite a bit,” Wolves coach Chris Finch said. “The guys were super locked-in. They knew what it was going to take.”