April 15, 2023

Timberwolves beat Thunder in play-in game to claim 8th seed

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MINNEAPOLIS — Karl-Anthony Towns had 28 points and 11 rebounds to lead Minnesota into the playoffs, as the Timberwolves muscled and hustled their way past the Oklahoma City Thunder 120-95 to finish the play-in tournament Friday night.

Rudy 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, who was 3-for-17 from the field against the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, made 8 of 19 shots and had 19 points and 10 rebounds for the Wolves, who had a 58-30 advantage in points in the paint.

Minnesota will face No. 1 seed Denver in a best-of-seven series starting Sunday night. It will be a familiar series for Timberwolves president of basketball operations Tim Connelly, who built the Nuggets as their executive VP of basketball operations and president of basketball operations from June 2013 until leaving for the Timberwolves last May.

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. After scoring 31 points against the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday, Josh Giddey was just 2-for-13 from the floor.

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 Nickeil Alexander-Walker in the starting lineup. He guarded his cousin, the dynamic Gilgeous-Alexander, at the suggestion of Connelly.

“He’s a really tough cover, but we were closing all the spaces around him,” coach Chris Finch said. “We did a good job of never really letting him get in a rhythm.”

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, but he camped out on the perimeter too much down the stretch as the Wolves offense grinded to a woeful finish.

This time, the Wolves took a much better blend of outside and inside shots with a constantly moving ball. They leaned hard on their advantage around the basket, with the big men Towns and Gobert going to work against the smaller Thunder.

Gobert moved around rather stiffly, 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.

The Thunder came a long way from the loss of No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren, the 7-foot-1 Minneapolis native who broke his foot in an offseason pro-am game, but they let the Timberwolves pile up the highlights down the stretch.

“It was nice not to give back a lead, which we’ve done quite a bit,” Finch said. “The guys were super locked-in. They knew what it was going to take.”

ESPN Stats & Information and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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