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Nuggets 103, Wolves 101: Woes from the Third

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A disastrous third quarter was too much to overcome for Minnesota.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — The Denver Nuggets arrived at Target Center on the heels of losing seven of their last eight. You knew they would have the desperation to right their ship. A game you can’t afford to lay an egg for long stretches considering the circumstances.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.

In what was deja vu from the pre-Butler Wolves era, the infamous third quarter woes returned in this game, effectively killing the chances of winning. It’s a tired cliche amongst Wolves fans but it’s hard not to look at that quarter and find the blame.

As most of these stories go, the team still had a shot to win it in the end. Down six, Karl-Anthony Towns got the ball to the right of the key. He pump faked a three, which was sorely needed, leading to arguably the biggest dunk of his career:

KAT went for the original three-point play, thrilling the crowd, but tempering that as quickly as he missed the free throw to bring it within three. Must be hard to focus after something like that.

After getting another defensive stop, the Wolves bungled the game on their next possession.

KAT pump faked another three, however, this one led to a long three by Andrew Wiggins that missed the mark. It was another late game possession where the team looked out of control. Jamal Murray was fouled on the next play, increasing the lead back to four, and the Wolves would score a two as time expired. Too little, too late.

“We didn’t play as hard. We didn’t execute. We didn’t come out ready in the third quarter. They were ready. That’s what led to our demise,” Towns said after the game.

As depressing as it can be to return to this narrative, there are usually positive things to take away from the game. Denver was the number one offense last year and while they have regressed to nine this season, they still have the same versatile weapons to utilize.

The team’s defense stood pat most of the way, not letting Denver score through their number one option, Nikola Jokic. Denver tried to establish themselves in the paint early on, but Taj Gibson was not having it. He was tasked with defending Jokic to start the game — typically that’s Town’s job — and it worked.

Gibson was a wall in the post, but he also prevented dribble-drive attempts from Jokic, keeping the Nuggets out of rhythm and forcing them to take bad shots late in the clock.

You have to wonder though, if this decision was made at the expense of Denver’s other big, Paul Millsap. He went off for 25 points on 11-13 shooting, quite an efficient night. Stretch fours typically kill the Wolves, but Millsap’s shots came mostly from in the paint.

A hard foul by Towns split Millsap’s forehead open, an unconventional way to stymie his efforts, but he returned later to help seal the victory.

Jokic made up for his limited scoring with exceptional playmaking, tallying 10 assists. He couldn’t find a rhythm himself but was still able to find his guys. Hell, even Mason Plumlee had seven assists. You don’t usually get that from your two biggest players.

Denver’s ball movement killed the Wolves at times with passes going to open shooters and cutters. Even with that, the Wolves held one of the league’s best offenses to 103 points.

No, it was their amorphous offense in moments that killed this game.

They were aggressive early on in attempting to score close. It was clear the goal was to feed Wiggins to start. His number was consistently being called for pick and roll action and we witnessed the Andrew of old, thriving while attacking the rim. (I should note he had zero free throw attempts, something that’s hard to wrap my head around.)

With Jimmy Butler gone, he’s returned to his preferred position of shooting guard. That’s great for the Wolves as he can post up conventional two-guards, like Jamal Murray at the end of the first. Even as Malik Beasley slid down to help, Wiggins’ athleticism allowed him to back down Murray and turn to float it in easily.

It’s something we need to see more of as that was the only example from this game but the team has to find a way to exploit mismatches.

Dario Saric came up big with multiple hustle plays where he saved a ball from going out of bounds. Three times he did this! I typically hate these types of plays because it seems, more often than not, the ball goes to the other team for an easy transition bucket. Not with Dario:

He finished the game with 12 points, seven rebounds and three assists. The stat sheet won’t show he captured my heart in this game though with that effort.

Dario and Rob Covington, the new additions from the Butler trade, are a true breath of fresh air for this team. To finally see them in person was great. Covington, 16 points and two steals, just exudes positivity throughout the game, encouraging teammates and having friendly banter with the refs.

Dario’s hustle is infectious. It’s like we took Jimmy Butler, split him in two, and threw away the jackassery that came with him. (I’m not bitter, you’re bitter.)

It was the KAT show in the second quarter, but the positives were mostly contained there other than that massive dunk. He was visibly frustrated on the court after picking up two early fouls in the first and in the second, not seemingly getting his fair share of calls. That’s when he went off with 11 straight points for the Wolves doing stuff like this:

Weeeeeeeeeeeeee.

KAT still needs to mature with regards to his interactions with refs and how he carries himself after ‘bad’ calls. All superstars complain, but there’s just something about the way KAT does it that is so off-putting.

“Yeah, I thought that wasn’t the issue in terms of the way the game was officiated. There’s always going to be a couple of calls that go against you. We can’t let that get in the way of what we’re trying to do,” Coach Thibodeau said in the post game. A canned response is sometimes the best and truest response.

It’s too bad the start of the second half was absolutely terrible. The Wolves went 0-4 and had four turnovers on their first eight possessions to start the third. After losing the lead, they broke the scoring open with the ugliest transition play you’ve ever seen. Taj came up with the steal and some “Yakety Sax” shit happened which somehow led to a three by Wiggins from the corner.

It felt like that could have been a turning point for the team after such a horrid start. The intensity picked up after that as the teams went back and forth, but Denver’s adjustments at halftime were working, and Wolves continued to look out of sync. Their frenetic, ISO basketball can completely unhinge the game, and that’s what happened.

Derrick Rose continued his Most Improved Player campaign as he scored 20 points and had four assists. He, along with Saric, Covington, Tyus Jones and Gorgui Dieng, were the ones that kept this game winnable in the fourth quarter. Thibodeau left the second unit in longer than most games because it was working, but the starters couldn’t finish the job.

At least we have that dunk from KAT, right? Happy Thanksgiving everyone.