MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—First-round futility? For Kevin Garnett and Minnesota, it’s finished.
Though the Timberwolves are glad that playoff burden is gone, they’ve been focused all season on bigger things.
Garnett had 28 points, seven rebounds and eight assists to lead Minnesota to a 102-91 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Friday night, ending an NBA record of seven straight first-round series losses.
“We had 10 new players—half those guys don’t even know who we lost to last year,” Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders said. “Our goals were higher than winning a first-round playoff series. We think we have a legitimate chance to win a championship.”
Minnesota, which took the best-of-seven series 4-1, will host Sacramento in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on Tuesday.
“The bear is off my back, so to speak,” said Garnett, who had nine points in the fourth quarter.
His sprained left knee wasn’t strong enough to play on and though the 19-year-old’s first postseason was quiet, Denver wasn’t the same with Jon Barry in the starting lineup.
“You lose your leading scorer, obviously it’s a big factor,” Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik said. “But it happens and you deal with it. I’m very proud of our basketball team.”
Sam Cassell had 26 points and Latrell Sprewell scored 15 of his 19 in the first half for the Timberwolves, who got 72 percent of their scoring in this game from their leading trio. Mark Madsen, Fred Hoiberg and Ervin Johnson also made valuable contributions.
“They have a good chance,” Camby said. “I’ll be rooting for them.”
The eighth-seeded Nuggets showed some spunk in their first playoff series since 1995. But Garnett, the only one to play on all eight of the Timberwolves’ playoff teams, kept Denver from seriously threatening.
He scored Minnesota’s first six points of the fourth quarter—a dunk, two free throws and a turnaround—to bring the lead to 80-68 with 10 minutes left. Denver came within nine points twice after that, but no closer.
Taken out with 34 seconds to go, Garnett slowly raised his arms to acknowledge the roaring crowd before heading to the bench.
There were plenty of sideshows in this series, but referee Steve Javie’s crew kept both teams mostly under control. Barry and Sprewell, last seen jawing at each other after the Wolves’ win in Game 4, guarded each other without incident.
Camby was given a technical foul for taunting the Timberwolves’ bench late in the first half, and Sprewell stuck his tongue out at his old New York Knicks teammate after swishing a baseline jumper a few seconds later. They hugged after the game.
“Emotion runs high in the playoffs,” Barry said. “This was no different than any other series.”
This was arguably the most important game in the Timberwolves’ 15-year history—there was nothing they wanted less than a return to the Nuggets’ boisterous, high-altitude arena for Game 6.
The late tipoff (8:54 p.m. local time) provided the overflow sellout crowd of 19,890 plenty of time to get riled up. Before the game, a quote from Barry about the low noise level at Target Center during the first two games was posted on the scoreboard next to his picture.
The Wolves obliged their long-suffering fans with a 24-4 second-quarter run to take a 26-point lead. Sprewell stepped in front of Miller to steal a pass from Michael Doleac and raced the other way for an uncontested two-handed dunk before yelling at the Denver bench on the sprint back. That made it 54-28 Minnesota with 4 minutes left in the half.
Saunders took Sprewell and Garnett out shortly after, and the Nuggets stormed back by scoring the last 13 points of the quarter to pull within 57-45.
“At halftime, I broke a few things in the bathroom,” Saunders said. “In retrospect, I should’ve let those guys finish out and not let them get any kind of energy to get back in the game.”
Denver stayed close in the third, too. Neither Sprewell nor Cassell scored in that period, and Barry’s late 3-pointer cut the lead to 72-66—the closest the Nuggets came in more than 25 minutes of play.
“We had a terrible third quarter,” Garnett said. “I just told everybody, ‘Bump this, play off me.”’
Barry, who had fun with the boos from Minnesota’s fans throughout the night, held his index finger up to his lips on the jog back.
“Vegas had us winning 25 games,” Barry said. “People around town said wecould maybe win 35. But we won 43 games and played Minnesota pretty tough.”
Barry, a 12-year veteran, made his first start in 55 career playoff games. … Despite the Wolves’ wishes for silence, fans again chanted “MVP! MVP!” when Garnett was at the foul line. “That drives me crazy,” Saunders said after one instance in the fourth quarter. … Denver’s Francisco Elson, who apologized Thursday for calling Garnett “gay,” didn’t play. “Coach’sdecision,” was all Bzdelik said.