Timberwolves 98, Nuggets 77

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—The Denver Nuggets lost their shooting touch and their grip on the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Kevin Garnett had 20 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists, and Sam Cassell and Wally Szczerbiak added 18 points each to lead the Minnesota Timberwolves past the Nuggets 98-77 Sunday.

Denver, which shot just 31 percent for the game, fell a half-game behind Utah for the final conference playoff spot and is in a virtual tie with Portland for ninth. The Nuggets have lost three in a row and seven of 10.

“We were off tonight,” said Denver’s Carmelo Anthony, who shot just 6-for-22 and scored 13 points. “We’ve got to want to win. We’ve been going through the motions recently. Maybe this is a wake-up call for us.”

The Wolves, meanwhile, moved two games in front of San Antonio atop the Midwest Division heading into a crucial matchup with the Spurs on Tuesday in Minneapolis. Minnesota can clinch a playoff spot by winning that game, or on Monday if Portland loses to Houston.

Without Troy Hudson (sore right ankle), Garnett spelled Cassell at point guard, one All-Star replacing another. No stranger to assists, Garnett became just the 17th player in NBA history to reach 13,000 points, 7,000 rebounds and 3,000 assists after his performance Sunday.

“I didn’t ask for this assignment,” Garnett said. “It was kind of shoved in my mouth, but it’s something I can swallow. We just simplify the game a little bit.”

Minnesota never trailed and led by as many as 38 points against the cold-shooting Nuggets, who barely outscored Garnett in the first quarter (15-14).

Denver never got closer than 15 points in the second half, at 55-40, and the Wolves pulled away with a 31-8 run.

Anthony was shadowed for most of the game by defensive stopper Trenton Hassell and scored eight points below his average. Even worse news for Denver, he was the Nuggets’ leading scorer.

“You’ve got to contest every shot and rely on your teammates,” Hassell said of guarding Anthony. “He’s a great scorer, but he missed a lot of jumpers today.”

The Wolves set a franchise record for fewest points allowed in a first half by limiting the Nuggets to 25. Denver shot just 8-of-43 from the field.

Garnett running the point wasn’t the only lineup change for the Wolves. Center Michael Olowokandi, who started the past 12 games but struggled to adjust to the offense, came off the bench and chipped in 10 points.

“Playing with our secondary unit gives me a situation I’m more familiar with,” Olowokandi said.

And Szczerbiak had his second straight strong performance in extended minutes as he works his way back from a heel injury. Szczerbiak had 24 points in 30 minutes Friday and played 23 more Sunday.

The Nuggets, ranked fifth in the league in scoring, shot 4-for-24 in the first quarter, with Anthony and point guard Andre Miller going a combined 1-for-14.

“There’s no room for mistakes now,” Anthony said.

^Notes: Both Garnett and Cassell went down hard after a collision with the Nuggets’ Nene a minute into the game. They stayed on the floor for a few moments, but both got up and remained in the game. … Cassell and Denver’s Michael Doleac were assessed technical fouls with 6:57 left in the second quarter after a verbal confrontation. Wolves center Oliver Miller got a technical and was ejected from the game by referee Sean Corbin following another scrape in the final two minutes. … The Wolves ended a five-game losing streak on Sundays.

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Top Performers

 Top Performers
 Denver
C. Anthony C. Anthony
6-22,  13 Pts
4 Rebs, 4 Assists
 Minnesota
K. Garnett K. Garnett
8-14,  20 Pts
13 Rebs, 7 Assists

Team Stat Leaders

Points
Rebounds
Assists