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Game 18, Wolves vs Nuggets: Battle of the Bigs

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Minnesota hosts Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets

NBA: Houston Rockets at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Timberwolves (7-10) vs Denver Nuggets (10-7)

7:00pm CST

FS North

Tonight, the Wolves host the Nuggets in their first matchup since the elimination game 81 to end last year’s regular season.

While the stakes aren’t nearly as high this time around, this is still a pretty important game for both teams.

For Minnesota, this is an opportunity to get a good win over a playoff-level opponent, and to start a new win streak. After winning their first 3 games since the Jimmy Butler trade, Minnesota dropped their game to Memphis on Sunday. It’ll be important to keep their momentum going if they want to make a real push into playoff contention as the season rolls on.

For Denver, they come in badly needing a win. They’re in the midst of a brutal part of their schedule, which has made them losers of 7 of their last 8 games. For a little context, they’ve lost to Utah, Houston, New Orleans, Brooklyn, Memphis, and Milwaukee twice during that stretch with their lone win coming against the lowly Hawks. Their schedule does not get any easier, either. After visiting the Target Center, they get Orlando, Oklahoma City, LAL, Portland and Toronto. This is clearly a brutal stretch for Denver, and a loss tonight could really dig them into a hole.

In terms of personnel, all eyes will be on the big men, Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic. Jokic presents so many problems for opposing defenses. He’s great around the rim, but his passing and shooting separate him from other big’s across the league. He averages 6.9 assists per game, which is an insanely high number for a 7-footer. While Jamal Murray can fill it up from all over the court, he’s not a great distributor. This has put much of the shot creation duties onto Jokic, which he is more than capable of handling.

What worries me the most about this matchup is the Gary Harris-Nikola Jokic two-man game. Usually, a guard/big two-man game is run via pick-and-roll. These two, however, make their living off of dribble hand-offs and backdoor cuts. They are one of the best, if not the best, duos in the league in these areas. Harris is one of the best cutters in the NBA, and here’s one example of an action that we can expect to see tonight.

These actions are incredibly difficult to defend. Normally, you’d like to just have your big drop down a step to take away the easy pass to Harris on the curl. However, if you do that you leave Jokic open for the easy jump-shot. Jokic is a 38% shooter from beyond the arc. You simply can’t leave him open.

So without the big being able to help, and Harris’ defender needing to trail around the hand-off to eliminate his three-point looks, what do you do? The easiest option would be to find someone to help off of, but there aren’t really any great options in Denver’s starting lineup. The best option is probably Paul Millsap, but even he is a respectable three-point shooter (34%).

How Minnesota chooses to defend the action around Jokic will likely be the difference in the game. It’s nice to have a guy like Robert Covington (currently 4th in the league in Defensive Real Plus-Minus) to make life difficult for Harris, but that’s only half of the equation.

There is no perfect solution to defending this team. There’s a reason they had the best offense in the NBA last year. Jokic is going to test KAT defensively all night long, and if he isn’t up to the challenge Denver could hang a big number up tonight.

As good as Denver is, I still think the Wolves continue to play well with their positive energy tonight. I think KAT really shows up, and that the Wolves make things difficult for Denver. The goal isn’t to completely stop this Denver offense tonight, rather just to contain them enough to give yourself a shot at the end of the game.

Projected Lineups

Wolves

Jeff Teague

Andrew Wiggins

Robert Covington

Taj Gibson

Karl-Anthony Towns

Nuggets

Jamal Murray

Gary Harris

Juancho Hernangomez

Paul Millsap

Nikola Jokic