- Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (22-23) vs. Denver Nuggets (31-13)
- When: 9:00 PM CST
- National TV: ESPN (Dave Pasch, Doris Burke, Ros Gold-Onwude)
- Local TV: Bally Sports North (Michael Grady, Jim Petersen and Katie Storm)
- Radio: 830 WCCO-AM
- Line: Wolves +10 | Total: 239 (courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)
What To Watch For
Styles Make Fights
A team that is elite on one end of the floor will often use that side of the ball to dictate a game, and that is certainly the case with the Nuggets’ offense. Denver’s whopping 117.7 offensive rating only slightly trails the Boston Celtics’ for best in the league as Nikola Jokić orchestrates one of the game’s most dangerous attacks; seven Nuggets average double-digit points per game.
The Wolves are slightly better on defense than offense — their 113.1 defensive rating ranks 13th while their 112.9 offensive rating ranks 18th. If they can use that strength to hold the Nuggets below a blistering pace, perhaps they can punish Denver’s 17th-ranked defense enough to hang with the top team in the Western Conference.
Speed of play will hold a crucial role in this game. Theoretically, Minnesota would like to push the tempo; it ranks eighth in the league in pace while Denver ranks 20th, and it’s always good to play the game on your terms when facing an elite opponent. However, the Wolves are still down multiple key contributors and will be playing at Denver’s mile-high altitude, which is known to take the wind out of visiting clubs. The Wolves can try and floor it, but they may find their gas tank empty earlier than expected.
Minnesota will carry a rest advantage into this game, having played Monday while Denver is on the second night of a back-to-back. The bad news is that Minnesota is coming off a tough home loss to the Utah Jazz and Denver just beat the Portland Trail Blazers behind 36 points (on 13-of-14 shooting), 12 rebounds and 10 assists from Jokić. If Walker Kessler threw up a 20-20 game on this club, one shudders to think what the two-time defending MVP is capable of.
What Happened in the First Game?
Minnesota and Denver have only played one of their four scheduled matchups for the season. The Timberwolves had lost six straight games when they welcomed the surging Nuggets to the Target Center on Jan. 2. Denver was riding high, having won 10 of its last 12, including a big home win over a fellow elite team in the Celtics the night before. Minnesota, meanwhile, was licking its wounds literally and figuratively: D’Angelo Russell and Naz Reid both joined Karl-Anthony Towns as injury casualties, and it was coming off what was then its worst loss of the season vs. Detroit.
None of that mattered. The Wolves took a moderate lead into halftime and then used Anthony Edwards’ 15 points to trade blows with Denver as the Nuggets tried to make their move in the third quarter. A strong finish in the fourth clinched a 124-111 victory for the Wolves.
Edwards finished with 29 points, Jaden McDaniels made nine of his 10 shots en route to 21 points, and Kyle Anderson and Jaylen Nowell combined for 36 on 50% shooting. Jokić put up 24-7-9, but the key for Minnesota was forcing Aaron Gordon to take almost as many shots (12 points on 18 field goal attempts) as Jokić (20 FGA).
The Wolves did well to actually win the free-throw battle for once, going 21-of-27 from the line to the Nuggets’ 16-of-20. An area of concern for this game is Denver’s 29-15 edge in fast-break points, though; if the Nuggets held that big of a running edge at Target Center, it’s scary to consider what they could do in their high-altitude, friendly confines against a depleted squad.
How Will Minnesota Handle Jokić?
Planning for the two-time reigning MVP is the first order of business for any team matching up with the Nuggets. Jokić is firmly in consideration for a third straight year taking home the NBA’s highest individual honor given that he’s averaging 25 points, 11 rebounds and a career-high 9.8 assists per game with an incredible 69.8% true shooting percentage per Basketball-Reference.
Clearly, Jokić is difficult enough to handle on an ideal night, but the Wolves’ limited big man depth makes their situation against him even more precarious. Towns is still out, and Rudy Gobert will also miss the game with a groin injury; the bigs remaining to take on the Jokić assignment are Naz Reid, Luka Garza and Nathan Knight, not guys who will strike fear in the Joker’s heart.
Jokić’s counting stats against the Wolves the last two seasons (i.e. when Minnesota has fielded a competitive team) are just as gaudy as his usual numbers (27.2-14.2-8.6 per game in five games per StatMuse), but there are areas where Minnesota has had some success. Jokić averages five turnovers per game and has shot 55% from the field in those games, worse than his numbers from the two seasons overall. Most importantly, the Wolves have won the last four contests in which they’ve met Jokić.
Of course, limiting Jokić’s impact is just as much about doing a sound job defending his cutting teammates as it is defending him one-on-one. If the Wolves stick to their assignments and get a little luck against the big man, they could hang around.
- Anthony Edwards — Left Hip Soreness
- Taurean Prince — Left Ankle Sprain
- Rudy Gobert — Right Groin Soreness
- Jordan McLaughlin — Left Calf Sprain
- Austin Rivers — Left Knee Contusion
- Karl-Anthony Towns — Right Calf Strain
- Bones Hyland — Right Ankle Sprain
- Jamal Murray — Left Ankle Sprain
- Jeff Green — Left Finger Sprain/Hand Fracture
- Peyton Watson — Left Adductor Strain