After sitting for three-plus quarters, Griffin had 10 points, three rebounds and two blocks in the final 10 minutes to spark Minnesota to a 98-92 win over the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night.
The Timberwolves snapped a six-game losing streak.
“I just wanted to go in there and give them a boost,” Griffin said. “It wasn’t really that hard because I had fresh legs.”
Kevin Garnett led Minnesota with 24 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, but it was Griffin who injected a stagnant team with some much-needed energy to deliver the victory.
“Does it surprise me? No,” Kevin Garnett said of Griffin’s contribution. “Am I amazed? Yes.”
The Nuggets led 82-77 with just under 6 minutes to play after Andre Miller hit a jumper.
But Wally Szczerbiak responded with a jumper and a three-point play, and Griffin backed down Nene for an easy bucket to tie the game at 82 less than 2 minutes later.
That set up a back and forth final four minutes that featured five lead changes.
After Earl Boykins hit two free throws for an 84-82 lead, Griffin hit a 3-pointer, dunked off a miss from Szczerbiak and converted a three-point play off a brilliant hustle play by Szczerbiak for a 92-88 lead with 1:13 to go.
After Latrell Sprewell missed everything on a leaner in the lane, Szczerbiak sprinted to the baseline and saved the ball right to Griffin, who laid it in and drew a foul.
“I saw Carmelo didn’t want to save it,” Szczerbiak said. “I just ran at it and took out the little girl in the first row. Those types of plays have not been happening for us.”
Carmelo Anthony wore his shorts right from the get-go and scored 21 points to lead the Nuggets and Boykins added 19, including a driving layup that brought Denver within two with 30 seconds to play.
But Garnett and Szczerbiak sealed the win with free throws and Anthony, who caught national attention for pulling his shorts down to fix them after starting Tuesday night’s win over Utah with them on backwards, airballed a 3-pointer to close it out.
“We got back in the game, but at the end, we couldn’t get a rebound,” Boykins said.
Denver lost for just the second time in seven games under new head coach George Karl, but nearly came back from an 18-point deficit against the struggling Timberwolves.
“We kept battling and we started playing well,” Karl said. “I really thought that was a courageous part of the game.”
With Griffin on the bench, the Denver front line dominated the boards, refusing Minnesota any second-chance shots.
Griffin tracked down loose balls, grabbed two critical offensive rebounds down the stretch and had a big block on a layup attempt by Marcus Camby.
“After sitting the whole game, he could have come in and just dogged it,” Wolves guard Troy Hudson said. “But he came in and played like it was his last game.”
The intensity of this rivalry has been on the upswing since the teams met in the first round of last year’s playoffs. In their previous meeting, Michael Olowokandi and Nene were both ejected for fighting in the third quarter.
There was no incident this time, and the Timberwolves looked like their old selves early, playing tough defense and knocking down open shots to build an 18-point lead.
But Kenyon Martin scored six points during a 16-2 run that cut the margin to four points at 43-39, eliciting boos from an impatient and skeptical home crowd.
After shooting just 6 for 23 in the first quarter, the Nuggets were 12-of-18 in the second and trailed 45-41 at halftime.
Martin finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds and Camby added 15 points.
Szczerbiak scored 19 points for Minnesota.
More importantly, a team that showed little signs of life during the recent skid finally responded to adversity.
“When you lost six in a row … your concern is are guys going to be able to fight back or are they going to hang their heads?” Saunders said. “Tonight for one of the few times all season, they fought back.”
Sam Cassell missed the game with a strained right hamstring. Cassell missed 10 games earlier this season with the same injury, and Saunders says the team will be cautious in bringing him back. … The Nuggets’ 14 first-quarter points were just two better than their season low for points in a quarter.