Rivalry budding between Timberwolves, Nuggets

The playoffs are on the line in Denver.

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Clinging onto the Western Conference’s seventh seed, the Minnesota Timberwolves visit the Pepsi Center for one of two showdowns with the Nuggets in the final week of the NBA’s regular season.

Minnesota has a one-game lead over the Nuggets, who are currently on the outside looking in at the playoff picture in the No. 9 position.

With a win, the Timberwolves would be one victory away from clinching their first playoff berth since 2004. But a loss would be costly. And it would sting a bit more to drop one to the divisional-rival Nuggets, a team Minnesota has developed a rivalry with over the past couple years despite the recent postseason irrelevancy of both franchises.

“They’re in our division, our conference,” center Karl-Anthony Towns said after beating Denver 112-104 in December. “We have to take these games personally. I got a backstory.”

Towns never alluded to the “backstory” that fuels this budding rivalry, but one can assume it links to fellow dynamic center Nikola Jokic.

The two have squared off 10 times in their careers, each battling his way to five wins. Towns averages 21.6 points, 12.2 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game against Jokic, while the Serbian has registered 14.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks.

Both players are do-it-all centers who can dominate the boards while also shooting the lights out from downtown. Jokic is no joke with 104 makes from beyond the arc this season, more than doubling his previous career-best of 45 set last year. Towns is shooting at a 42.4 percent clip from 3 this season, which is the best mark for a 7-footer in NBA history, ahead of future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki (41.6 percent in 2006-07).

After losing five straight games to Denver from 2015-16, the Timberwolves have won four consecutive matchups, dating back to a 111-108 win on Jan. 22, 2017. They are racking up 115.8 points per contest in those last four contests while dominating points in the paint, 51.0 to 39.6.

But the focus Thursday night will be on the other end of the court, slowing Denver’s proficient offense that’s scored 100+ points in 28 of its last 29 games.

Buckle up, Timberwolves fans. This rivalry is about to get heated.

NOTABLE

— The Timberwolves (44 wins) and Nuggets (43 wins) are in fourth and fifth (last) place in the Northwest Division. No team in the NBA has finished in last place in a division and won more than 45 games since the league adopted a five-division format in 2004-05.

— Minnesota hasn’t won the season series against the Nuggets since 2003-04 — the last time the Timberwolves were in the playoffs.

— Towns is averaging 32.3 points and 14.0 rebounds over his last three games. Towns, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the only players to average 30-plus points and 14-plus rebounds over a three-game span this season.

— Without Jeff Teague in the lineup, Andrew Wiggins is averaging 26.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Teague is questionable for Thursday’s game with a sore knee.

Statistics courtesy STATS