To be honest, I had pretty much finished writing up this recap in the middle of the fourth quarter. At that point, the Wolves were down by 16 points and Karl-Anthony Towns had just exited the game. The Wolves were simply ice cold from beyond deep, but this team’s structural issues were rearing up again.
Then the Nuggets missed every single shot they took for six minutes, the Wolves roared back, and sent the game into overtime. Then a high fadeaway from Nikola Jokic with two seconds remaining sealed the game.
Oh, and the Wolves shot 6 of 45 on three-point attempts.
The Denver Nuggets have served as a good litmus test for the Wolves in recent years. It was fitting two years ago when the Wolves beat the Nuggets to head to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.
This is partially due to the matchups, as the Wolves and Nuggets are similarly built around superstar bigs in Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic. These teams are both constructed to maximize (and cover for) the skills of the respective superstars. Of course, since last year, this has proven wildly more successful in Denver than it has in Minnesota due to the depth of the roster.
But this Wolves team is flat out weird. In the rapid shift in the style of play, the Wolves’ roster has not caught up. The aforementioned structural issues, the Wolves do not have good shooters, the ability to match up with larger power forwards, and are paper-thin at point guard, leave the Wolves overmatched against better teams.
The Wolves were again without Jeff Teague and Shabazz Napier, which left rookie Jarrett Culver at point. The Jordan McLaughlin minutes have become so abhorrent (he was an impressive -8 in 9 minutes), that he is rarely out there without Culver. This left the Wolves without a point guard for much of the game and either Andrew Wiggins or Josh Okogie would initiate sets.
In the first half, the game played out relatively similar to the game against Golden State. The Wolves were clanking away from deep, struggled to initiate offensive sets with Towns or Wiggins are not on the court, and simply dribbled away the ball in transition. Meanwhile, the team was often drastically undersized, as the Nuggets’ forwards were vastly larger than the Wolves counterparts.
But yet, somehow the manic energy translates into steals and transition buckets. At halftime, the Wolves were shooting 4 of 23 from deep and but were leading 51 to 49.
In the third quarter, everything fell apart. The Wolves just could not make a basket, even when they were taking open looks from deep. They ended up shooting 1 of 11 from beyond the arc in the third quarter as the Nuggets opened up a huge lead. Paul Millsap utterly dominated the quarter, including one thunderous dunk down Jake Layman’s throat. The Wolves lost the quarter 27 to 13, which was particularly disheartening considering that Jokic was on the bench most of the quarter due to foul trouble.
The Nuggets made a few adjustments that spelled trouble for the Wolves. On high pick and rolls, the Nuggets went under every pick and had the big that was guarding Towns play the roll, shifting over the weakside defender to cover Towns on the pick and pop. With a wing initiating the action every time, no one could make the wide-open skip pass.
The Nuggets also began picking up the Wolves lead guards full-court, which put even more pressure of the Wolves wings to speed up the offense once they made it past halfcourt.
But this was a very winnable game. While Jokic had the gamewinner, he did not play well. Towns played extremely good defense on Jokic all game. Jamal Murray started out hot, scoring 15 points in the first quarter, but came down with a foot injury in the second quarter and while he returned, his pace slackened.
The Wolves simply could not make shots. They had open three after open three that clanged off the rim. Towns was uncharacteristically off-target, going 3 of 14 from beyond the arc. He was matched by Wiggins 1 of 6 and Jake Layman’s 0 for 6.
While Towns shot poorly, he still pulled in 16 boards to go with 25 points and five assists. He did particularly well dishing out of the low-post.
Wiggins continued his turn of positive play. While he struggled from deep, he played solid defense all game, distributed the ball fairly well, and attacked the rim. In the fourth quarter and overtime he had several spectacular plays and looked like he was going to be able to snatch another victory out of thin air for the Wolves.
Okogie, Treveon Graham, and Robert Covington combined for some terrific defense in the fourth quarter, just completely shutting down the Nuggets and giving the Wolves continuous opportunities to close the gap. This was certainly not Covington’s best game, but he had a few highlights on defense at the end.
Culver got the start again and showed a bit more of why the Wolves have been so excited about him. He still gets into trouble with the ball and is jump shot is shaky, but he had a few impressive drives, including a huge dunk in transition.
But the Wolves shot 6 of 45 from three.
While Gersson Rosas has said numerous times that his goal was not to make the Minnesota Timberwolves “Houston North,” this had all the hallmarks of a modern Houston Rockets loss. The high variance of three-pointers turned on the Wolves (although this seems more likely considering their quality of shooters) and the high-usage star had an irregular shooting night.
I am still not sure how the Wolves climbed back into this game, but it is certainly a positive sign that they made a competitive game out of such a terrible shooting performance. While the structural issues remain, they seem to be outweighed by the positive design.