It appears as if the Minnesota Timberwolves are turning a corner, even if it’s happening at a slow rate. And with four of their next five games coming against sub-.500 teams, that hypothesis will now be expected to show results.
Minnesota is 9-10 since its impressive comeback 99-94 victory in Tom Thibodeau’s old building against the Chicago Bulls. In that span, the Wolves have recorded a net rating of 1.1 (good for 10th in the NBA) and a defensive rating of 104.9 (good for seventh in the NBA).
For comparison, the Wolves’ net rating prior to that December 13th victory against Chicago was -3.1 (19th in the NBA) while their defensive rating of 109.2 was 27th in the NBA.
The only struggle that has persisted through the improvements since the Bulls victory is closing out tight victories. Minnesota won its first game all season by four points or less at Staples Center against the LA Clippers on Thursday night after losing its first 10.
Maybe a close victory like that was the last spark needed to ignite the complete Wolves turnaround.
The Denver Nuggets enter Target Center Sunday night in the midst of their own turnaround, having won four of their last five. Over the same time span as Minnesota’s slow turnaround (since December 13th), Denver has morphed into an offensive juggernaut. The Nuggets boast the second-best offensive rating (115.0) in that time span to go with a net rating of 0.9, trailing just behind the Wolves in 11th. Additionally, Denver is comfortably in third in both true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage.
Nikola Jokic’s efficiency has risen to heights rarely ever seen in the NBA. In that same time span (since December 13th), Jokic’s offensive rating sits at 120.9 and his true shooting percentage sits at 70.2 percent. Reminder: That’s over a month’s worth of basketball.
Oh, and this...
Over the last 21 games, Jokic has more games shooting 70% or better than he does shooting 60% or worse.— Adam Mares (@Adam_Mares) January 22, 2017
Tonight will certainly be a true test of Minnesota’s defensive improvement. Unfortunately, the Wolves will have to manage this potent Denver offense without Ricky Rubio. Meanwhile, the Nuggets will not have their starting point guard as Emmanuel Mudiay will sit with back issues.
It doesn’t really matter who is out as long as Jokic is active and on the floor for Denver. If he’s not contained (whether it’s Karl-Anthony Towns or Gorgui Dieng defending him), the Nuggets will likely surge to another proficient offensive performance.
I know it’s extremely early to get too worried about the playoffs. But this game includes more playoff indications than the average game at this point in the season. Denver currently owns the eighth seed in the West at 18-24 with Minnesota just 3.5 games back at 15-28. Winning tonight would help the Wolves take a significant step forward in the race to get swept by the Golden State Warriors.
Playoff teams win games at home like this one, and slow maturation has been the main reason the Wolves haven’t performed like a playoff team yet. A win tonight against a hot team for the Wolves would be a terrific sign of maturation, especially without Rubio in the rotation.
Expected Starting Lineups
PG - Kris Dunn
SG - Zach LaVine
SF - Andrew Wiggins
PF - Gorgui Dieng
C - Karl-Anthony Towns
Injuries: Nikola Pekovic is out (achilles). Ricky Rubio is out (personal).
PG - Jameer Nelson
SG - Will Barton
SF - Danilo Gallinari
PF - Kenneth Faried
C - Nikola Jokic
Injuries: Emmanuel Mudiay is out (back). Gary Harris (ankle) and Darrell Arthur (knee) are questionable.
As we always do in game previews, let’s take a look at how the Wolves and Nuggets match up using the Four Factors. Reminder, the Four Factors are effective field goal percentage (eFG%), turnover percentage (TOV%), offensive rebounding percentage (ORB%), and free throw rate (FTR).
Factor / Wolves / Nuggets
eFG% / 50.5 / 51.7
TOV% / 15.3 / 15.1
ORB% / 27.6 / 28.2
FTR / .285 / .289
Hoofta, not particularly positive for the Wolves there. The advantage for Denver is slim in each category, but nonetheless the Wolves don’t appear to match up well with the Nuggets.
Despite the poor matchup in the four factors, I like the Wolves tonight. Tyus Jones stepped up in a large way against the Clippers on Thursday and he will surely get some crunch time minutes again tonight if needed. Dunn’s matchup with Nelson at the starting point guard spot isn’t the scariest thing in the world. As long as Jokic is somewhat contained, Minnesota can come out on top.
Prediction: Wolves 109, Nuggets 105