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Game Preview #78: Wolves at Nuggets

It’s do-or-die time in Denver.

Denver Nuggets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Game Info

Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (43-34) at Denver Nuggets (46-31)
When: 8:00 PM CST
TV: Bally Sports North
Radio: 830 WCCO AM Radio
Line: Wolves +3 (courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)



What To Watch For

I feel like a broken record stating that tonight is the biggest game of the Timberwolves’ season to this point, but it is.

Minnesota awaits an opportunity to make up ground on the No. 6 seed Nuggets at altitude in Denver, in what will be the team’s seventh-straight game against a playoff-bound opponent. The Wolves have won just two of those six games, and have blown double-digit leads in two of those four losses.

Here’s a look at the standings entering today:

The Wolves hold the tiebreaker over the Nuggets in the event the two teams finish with identical records. Minnesota needs to win out to have any chance at catching either Utah or Denver, whose schedules have layup wins in them.

  • Minnesota: @ DEN, @ HOU, vs WAS, vs SAS, vs CHI
  • Denver: vs MIN, @ LAL, vs SAS, vs MEM, vs LAL
  • Utah: @ GSW, vs MEM, vs OKC, vs PHX, vs POR

Both Denver and Utah could very well close its season with two games against teams with nothing to play for and rest players as a result.

If Minnesota were to finish 5-0, they would need Denver to go 2-3 or Utah to go 1-4 in order to avoid the play-in, which is extremely unlikely.

The Wolves have carried themselves with a sense of unearned arrogance over the past couple of weeks that has essentially cost them their shot at the No. 6 seed.

The act of celebrating this, with two weeks left in the season, didn’t sit right with me at the time and looks even worse now. Whether it was the coaching staff or the veterans on the team, allowing the team to celebrate something like this probably shouldn’t happen again in the future.

Minnesota went on to choke away a road game in Dallas the next day after climbing back into it, followed by letting a 15-point lead slip at home, and two zero-effort games in the subsequent three outings, all effectively must-win, playoff-type games.

That just can’t happen if you are looking to turn your culture around and send a message to the league that you are you think you are.

Instead, the Wolves proved they have a long way to go.

Conversely, Denver has been gutting it out on the back of Nikola Jokić. The reigning MVP has been a one-man team in every sense of the term, and absolutely deserves to go back-to-back with the NBA’s most prestigious individual award for his efforts.

Down their second and third-best players — and carrying one of the worst bench units in the entire NBA —, Jokić has willed his Nuggets back above the play-in line. That’s a stark contrast to the Wolves’ unraveling without Jaden McDaniels.

Since the All-Star break, the Nuggets are 13-6 despite Jokić getting minimal consistent help from his supporting cast.

Rookie guard Bones Hyland has one of the lone bright spots for a Denver team that desperately needs scoring in support of their MVP. Hyland is averaging 12.8 points per game on 49.0/45.2/79.6 shooting splits to go along with 3.25-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

If Minnesota’s bench unit can keep Hyland in check, their chances of winning increase significantly. When the two teams last played, the Wolves’ bench outscored Denver’s reserves 68-49 and the Wolves won the non-garbage-time minutes Jokić sat for by 23 points.

Phoenix Suns v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

That type of performance will be more difficult to replicate without the services of McDaniels (who could return to the lineup next week), but Malik Beasley’s speedy return from what appeared to be a nasty left ankle sprain will supply the bench with some much needed spurt ability and offensive spacing.

When Jokić is on the floor, running efficient offense is imperative. Jokić is capable of getting the Nuggets an open look by himself every trip down the floor, which means that the Wolves will need to match that pace while creating equally good or better looks.

D’Angelo Russell has struggled profusely in the month of March and faces another team tonight that is excellent at defending ball handlers in the pick-and-roll.

The Wolves need to help bring out the best in their point guard, who holds averages of 15 points and 6.5 assists per game in two matchups with Denver this season. If Russell continues to attack the rim at an increasing rate and get to the foul line, it’s only a matter of time before seeing the ball go through the net becomes a more common feeling for the one-time All-Star. I expect Russell to continue that trend tonight instead of settling for off-the-dribble jumpers.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

As Anthony Edwards continues to get back on track, he will need to hold his own against Aaron Gordon (the Nuggets’ best defender). Edwards scored 38 points the last time Minnesota was in Denver, but only scored eight points against Gordon, who was his primary defender for 51.9% of Edwards’ time on offense. Ant Man scored 30 points in the other 48.1% of the time, including 13 points when guarded by Jokić on switches or in pick-and-roll, per NBA Stats.

Denver is an excellent matchup for Minnesota because Jokić has struggled to defend Towns this season and Nuggets head coach Michael Malone can has to choose between putting Gordon on Towns or Gordon on Edwards. If I were Malone, I’d put Gordon on Towns and force Edwards to step up to the plate in the biggest game of his career to date.

If that’s the case, the Wolves’ best home run hitter needs to dig into the box ready to swing for the fences.


Injury Reports

Minnesota

QUESTIONABLE

  • Malik Beasley (left ankle sprain)

Beasley was upgraded from out to questionable this morning after he successfully completed the Wolves’ walkthrough. He will be active and play tonight.

OUT

  • Jaden McDaniels (left ankle sprain)
  • Leandro Bolmaro (G-League assignment)
  • McKinley Wright IV (G-League assignment

Denver

QUESTIONABLE

  • JaMychal Green (right wrist sprain)

We’ll see if we get another all-time pregame report about Green tonight.

OUT

  • Jamal Murray (left knee injury recovery)
  • Michael Porter Jr. (lumbar spine surgery)
  • Zeke Nnaji (bilateral knee soreness)
  • Vlatko Cancar (right foot surgery)

Gambling Pick

I tweet out a gambling pick before most Wolves games over on my Twitter @jrborman13. So far this season, I am 33-35 (48.5%).

Tonight’s play: Anthony Edwards o20.5 points (line courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook).

  • Scored 38 points, made 10 3s last trip to Denver
  • Scored 24 points in each of his last two games on highly efficient shooting
  • Starting to find a rhythm from deep again; shooting 45.5% on 7.5 attempts per game over last 10
  • Gordon will be forced to spend time on KAT, opening time for Ant to attack

Check out DraftKings Sportsbook, the official sportsbook partner of SB Nation.