The first meeting of the season between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets ended in a close home loss for the Wolves. Jusuf Nurkic played a huge role for the Nuggets in that game, and the Wolves couldn’t close a deficit. Tonight’s game in Denver, while many things changed, ended in yet another close loss for the Wolves, 105-103.
Denver’s new-look starting lineup of Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Nikola Jokic had gotten them off to terrific starts in many of the six games it had been used. Tonight, the Wolves got off to the big start. Andrew Wiggins hit seven of his first eight field goals and Karl-Anthony Towns displayed some of the finest passing of his young career while being swarmed with double teams to power the Wolves to an early thirteen point lead in the second quarter.
The surprise return of Nurkic after a four-game absence sparked a Nuggets run, and the lead was gone in minutes. A tied game at halftime spiraled out of the Wolves’ control in the third quarter, as shot after shot fell for Denver, and only the unlikely scoring contributions of both Ricky Rubio and Gorgui Dieng kept the Wolves even within striking distance heading to the final frame.
The Nuggets led by that same eight points as late as 3:13 in the fourth, but a late run sparked by Towns finally hitting a couple of shots in a row and dominating the glass, where for the rest of the game he had missed and passed. The Wolves pulled into a tie at 103, but Gallinari made a well-contested shot for the final score, and Wiggins was denied at the rim by Chandler before a last-second heave by Zach LaVine missed to finish the Wolves off.
“Gallinari is a heck of a player. Players like him make shots like that,” Towns said of the game-winner. The shot may have had a bit of luck, coming off the backboard, and Wiggins defended it well, but it worked just fine. “It was defended well, he banks it in. You tip your hat to that,” coach Tom Thibodeau said postgame.
Many things about this game went well for the Wolves, not least Towns registering his first career triple-double with 15 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Ironically, Towns struggled to score for much of the game. At one point in the fourth, his line was a Rubio-esque 5, 6 and 10. He was dominant late, but simply couldn’t get shots to fall early, and made a few poor decisions that led to his three turnovers. It’s strange, but he’s had much more impressive performances than this.
“You just pass it out and trust your teammates to hit shots like that, “ Towns said. “Our team has worked tremendously hard on making shots like that, having good flow and working around and getting to spots that we’re comfortable with. That comes a lot with the chemistry we’ve built, people getting to spots that they’re comfortable hitting shots in, and just understanding our system.”
“He played a great floor game, because he was so unselfish. We didn’t shoot it well, but he made the right play, that was the most important thing,” Thibodeau said of Towns after the game. “To have ten assists, he was trusting the pass. I thought he made great reads. You live with that. I thought we had great shots, overall the team moved the ball great.” The Wolves had 29 assists on 42 field goals, with many other potential assists missed.
A good few of those misses came from Rubio, who had a season-best 18 points, but was just 5/14 from the field (1/7 from 3). Almost every three he attempted was wide open from the corner, but they didn’t go down. His shot still looks flat, and just isn’t reliable. However, he was the only Wolf to get to the line consistently (7/7), and his switch to the midrange in the third quarter got him a nice little run of nine straight points.
Even within the signs of hope, the same problems remain. The defense was lackluster for yet another long stretch, and it wasn’t fixed when the Wolves closed the gap in the fourth quarter; the Nuggets just missed open shots. The bench (8 points) was a complete non-factor once again, and Nemanja Bjelica’s defensive awareness (or lack thereof) caused all sorts of problems.
The message after the game was a familiar one. “We know we’re not in a good spot. We’ve lost a lot of games. We just want to win, whatever it takes,” Rubio said after the game. “We’ve gotta learn how to be more consistent during the whole game. We started the game pretty good tonight, but early in the fourth quarter they got too many easy layups. That hurt us. We came back, but it was too late.”
“It’s easy to generalize that lost lead, but you have to look and say ‘Well, how did it happen?’ When you look at your defensive breakdowns, we have to be better,” Thibodeau said. “We’re relying on our offense. Offense, some nights you’re gonna shoot it better than others, you could hit a stretch where you shoot it well, then you may miss some shots. You gotta be able to count on your defense. If you have a lead, your defense should be able to get some stops, get into the open floor, get some easy buckets.”
This was another night where an impressive individual stat line gets pushed aside because once again, the Wolves couldn’t get a win in a close game against a team that, if they have any aspirations of moving upwards in the conference, they should beat. If they can ever string 48 good minutes together, as they did on Monday, they win. When they don’t, this is the result, and will continue to be so until they figure it out.
Stats, Notes, and Thoughts
- The Wolves should have come into the Gallinari possession with a one-point lead, had Wiggins made his free throws. Wiggins went 1-4 from the line late, and while the 0-2 trip was saved by a Towns putback, the second trip just wasn’t enough.
- Rubio wasn’t too far away from a triple-double himself, his 18 points accompanied by 8 rebounds and 7 assists. For most of the evening, he was leading the Wolves in rebounding while Towns led in assists, a strange state of affairs.
- The third near-triple-double of the game, Jokic, put on his own show of big-man passing, with his tenth assist of the night an impressive display of both ballhandling and foresight to drop the perfect pass ahead of him on the break. He finished with 16 points, 8 rebounds and 11 assists, and the fact that hit took until six games ago for him to start is totally inexplicable.
- Zach LaVine was due for an off night, and finally had one. He was oddly passive for much of the night, not jumping on the half-inch of space he had been the past few games, and didn’t hit much when he did shoot. He finished with 17 (7/17, 2/8 from 3) and five assists of his own.
- Gorgui Dieng’s 20 points were a season high for him as well. The Wolves’ 95 points from their starters have to be near a season high, but the total black hole from the bench (0/5 from Bjelica, 1/5 from Kris Dunn) just didn’t work.
- To Thibs’ credit, he adjusted his rotations to play around some of Denver’s lineup choices. He had been pretty set in the times the starters rotated in and out, and he switched that up, specifically finding time for Towns at the start of the second and fourth quarters, which created a few openings. The team also looked very well-prepared for the defensive strategy of the double-team on Towns and the appropriate response.