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NBA: Denver Nuggets at Minnesota Timberwolves

Nuggets 124, Wolves 109: The Same, But Different

Familiar struggles, different circumstances.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Parking my car in the same Ramp B spot I always gun for was a breeze. There were no cars.

Walking through a silent skyway that usually hums with at least a few youngsters beaming with energy on their way into Target Center felt deeply unusual. There were no people. There was silence before tip-off between two organizations walking along different paths since that memorable Game 82.

In the subhead of that 2018 recap linked above, I wrote “For this, it all feels worth it.”

In that special Wolves moment, sitting inside of a sold out building with fans so loud, so intoxicated by winning basketball, it did feel worth it. The short-term success ultimately wasn’t but being blessed to sit and watch my favorite team in an arena with no fans due to COVID-19 felt worth it once again.

I felt a sense of normalcy for the first time in a long time, even if the fake crowd chants of DE-FENSE, DE-FENSE, DE-FENSE felt foreign, almost like being in Zombieland. There was something truly comforting being there in 2021.

Plenty of possessions were played out to the same track tonight: the clapping hands of D’Angelo Russell and Nikola Jokic demanded the rock, the coaches encouraging their squads, the benches hyping up their guys. The sounds of the game were more present than ever before; squeaky souls of sneakers could even be heard 50 rows up.

The Wolves were late to shooters all night once again, leading to 19 threes on 45 attempts for the Nuggets. Jamal Murray sliced and diced a broken defensive unit to the tune of 36 points on 75.1% true shooting. Jokic wasn’t even great, yet he still was. Maybe that makes no sense, but then again great players always find a way to leave their mark on the game. The Joker was a game-high +27.

Not Really A Rookie point guard Facundo Campazzo, 29, from Argentina, was an annoyingly fascinating pest. (J.J Barea is on Line2.) All 15 of his points came from deep. He had 4 stocks. Campazzo helped lead the Nuggets' second unit, killing all of the hope in the process. There was also Monte Morris, one of the game's elite backup point guards who shouldn’t actually be a backup. His 11 points and 6 assists were bigger than they appear.

HERE WE ARE...another insurmountable hill to climb. The same struggle, just a tad different with some new characters.

Life without Karl-Anthony Towns in a small-ball lineup designed to play a fast and furious, pace and space style that generates wins with sheer offensive force (at least in theory) has proven to be a nightmare. Add a left hamstring injury to Josh Okogie, and the glaring reality about this roster construction—a team absent of size or any real power forward—only becomes more undeniable than the night before. Karl-less basketball once again proved what already was in plain sight: the Wolves aren’t going anywhere without him.

Even an impressive 36-28 third quarter to cut the deficit to 1-point couldn’t keep the obvious weaknesses from flaring up. Nothing was the same covering this game, except for witnessing another loss. In basketball terms, everything was exactly how I remember. The Wolves lost their fourth straight game as the defensive woes continue. They’re headed towards being the worst defensive team in the league. It’s an all too familiar place to be, though frustrating as ever before. A deeply flawed roster missing their greatest talent and energizing defender is falling fast in the West.

Maybe it’s the fact that no contingency plan seemed to be put in place. Naz Reid looks like a promising young center capable of keeping up in the modern NBA with his agility and shooting. Relying on him to shoulder starting five minutes, however, is a lose-lose proposition. That’s why Ryan Saunders decided to start Ed Davis on Sunday—a fine vet that knows his role, can hammer the offensive glass, and play within the offense, but also hardly a rim protector or paint enforcer.

“Our start to our fourth quarter wasn’t a start that will win you games,” said Ryan Saunders.

“That team has continuity, they have guys that have been here before. We didn’t make the right plays to start that fourth quarter. We weren’t able to get stops. I do applaud the things that our guys did tonight. I thought that these guys competed. There were some steps in the right direction.”

It’s hard to sell steps in the right direction to a fan base that’s heard the same lines for as long as they can remember.

“It’s hard to win in this league,” said D’Angelo Russell. Another familiar line of the past from the Wolf that’s struggling most.

“We still happen to be figuring things out. I actually thought we played well. I thought we played hard for 35 minutes and the rest of that kind of got away from us but like I said it is hard to win in this league. I don’t think we are ready to win yet. I think we are still figuring out how to lose. It sounds crazy but the way you lose says a lot about the team. I think today, how we lost, was a good way to lose. We did the right things throughout the game, we played hard for 35 minutes, the process was right, just let it get away from us at those small moments but I think we will be alright.”

The bright spots on Sunday night at Target Center came and went in a flash. Malik Beasley was sensational against his former team, but the defense was a complete and utter mess, and the league isn’t going to wait for the Wolves to figure things out. Beasley talking shit to the Nuggets bench after every bucket is the energy plenty of diehards are looking for in 2021. It’s the sort of attitude this team needs moving forward, instead of the head down lifeless sort of dejection that seems to be overwhelming them with every mistake.

Beasley is remaining positive, as always. “I feel great. I feel like I’m in great shape,” he said. “The game is slowing down for me. Ricky Rubio and D’Lo have done a great job making sure I play the right pace.” There’s no way around the numbers, though.

To take a phrase out of the Wolves’ President of Basketball Operations mouth, the reality of the situation is the team breaks down incredibly easily—a few bad offensive possessions leading to buckets on the other end make them fade away and lay down.

Entering the evening, the Wolves ratings were:

Off Rtg: 102.4 (26th of 30)
Def Rtg: 115.0 (29th of 30)

The Wolves won’t win with regularity until they fix their defense. They won’t steal wins until their offense figures it out either.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Minnesota Timberwolves
Murray had his way with the Wolves.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Turn up the music in Culver City

Well, it turns out Jarrett Culver is good when you don’t play him at power forward. Rocket science, I know. My belief in Culver City remains. We’ll continue to party when he jams.

JC: “Coming into the season we knew it was going to be different and we knew we were going to have to adjust to a lot of things. Being able to see your family before the games or no fans in the stands, some games there are fans in the stands. So being able to adjust all season is a big thing for us. ‘No excuses’ is what we said at the beginning of the season, so all of the excuses are out of the water.”

“The biggest difference is I got to see my mom before the game,” Culver started off his media availability with. “She told me she loved me. Go out there and have fun. Play for God.”

When asked about the difference between running high pick-and-rolls vs. dribble weave action, Culver said “When the ball moves side to side...that’s how basketball should be played.” He added that’s when the offense can thrive. While Culver didn’t sound like a critic by any means, there’s an iso-ball criticism there.

Culver on playing in his more natural position against the Nuggets...

“I mean for me, you know me, I am a competitor, I always want to win so whatever the team needs that’s what I will do. Whether I am at the three or the four or running the point guard, I want to go out there and contribute to whatever the team needs. So I am just going out there trying to do what the team needs to win.”

Quick Notes

  • Iso-ball, no defense D’Lo = bad
  • The second D’Angelo hit the bench with 2 fouls and the Wolves stopped standing around 4-out watching him play iso the tide turned
  • Rubio + Naz + Ant-Man came off the bench to jumpstart the team
  • That worked ^^^
  • Anthony Edwards was passing like a Young Ricky with tremendous vision
  • Saunders on Ant: “Some of the passes he made were 10-year vet type passes and reads.”
  • Russell came out strong in the second half, waking from his slumber with seven quick points. “It’s hard to win in this league. I don’t think we’re ready to win yet. We’re figuring out how to lose,” he said. DAR said the Wolves played well for 35 minutes but let things get away. Sadly, his +/- is inarguably awful this season.
  • Ryan Saunders (RS): “I’m not happy now—a loss is a loss.”
  • RS: “I like Naz [Reid] in his role where he can come in and be a playmaker with the second group.”
  • Ed Davis. “You don’t want them to run 2, 3, 4 of the same sets in a row.”
  • Denver started the 4th with the same sets, over and over again.
  • ED: “We were pretty much dead in the first quarter,” Davis said about the previous contests.We gave ourselves a chance but couldn’t punch back after they made that run on us in the fourth.”
  • After a handful of questions in his post-game availability, Ed Davis said “every question is about D’Lo.” While that’s an admirable statement in defense of his teammate, the fact remains: D’Angelo is paid to step up and he’s effectively destroying lineups.

The losing streak continues. While the whole season is wildly different, the same problems plaguing this team remain. Now, it’s time to see the response.