DENVER — Sputtering into the postseason was no way for the 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 2013.
Jamal Murray scored 17 points, including the go-ahead three-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’ three-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 three-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.
Spurs vs. Nuggets (best-of-seven)
- April 13: at Pepsi Center, 8:30 p.m.
- April 16: at Pepsi Center, 7 p.m.
- April 18: at San Antonio, 7 .m.
- April 20: at San Antonio, 3:30 p.m.
- April 23: at Pepsi Center, TBD*
- April 25: at San Antonio, TBD*
- April 27: at Pepsi Center, TBD*