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NBA Playoffs Preview Guide: #8 Timberwolves vs #1 Nuggets

Headlined by a trio of All-NBA bigs, the Wolves and Nuggets will battle it out in a series that will play much closer than its seedings suggest.

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

After a truly tumultuous season that took fans on a rollercoaster ride through all the stages of grief, only to instill hope in their fans before restarting the cycle, the Minnesota Timberwolves are back in the NBA Playoffs for the second straight season. It marks the first time the Wolves have made consecutive trips to the playoffs since 2003-04.

No. 8 seed Minnesota will battle the No. 1 seed Denver Nuggets, who limped into the playoffs after a month of mediocre basketball and intermittently resting two-time defending MVP Nikola Jokić en route to clinching the top spot in the bracket in the final week of the season.

Denver ranked 16th in net rating (+0.4) after the All-Star break, 17th in offense (114.7) and 15th in defense, and turned in a 12-11 record, including a 7-8 stretch over their final 15 games of the season. Jokić played in 18 of 23 games post-All-Star (10-8 record) and 10 of the final 15 (5-5 record). That isn’t great for a No. 1 seed hoping to enter the playoffs with some momentum; neither is drawing a first round matchup with a No. 8 seed that has talent on par with those hosting playoff series this year.

The Nuggets’ sub-par play reached a breaking point in a 124-103 loss to the last-place Houston Rockets on April 4.

“If that’s how we’re going to play, we’ll be out in the first round,” Nuggets Head Coach Michael Malone said postgame. “When we don’t do our jobs, there’s accountability. And I speak the truth. I just called our team soft, and I dared someone to challenge me. No one did, because we as a group were soft tonight. I’m not saying we are soft, but tonight, we were.”

Comparatively, Minnesota ranked 17th in net rating (+0.2) post-All-Star, 22nd in offense (113.5) and 12th in defense (113.6); the Wolves went 11-10 in their 22 games after the break and closed with an 8-7 record of their last 15 games. Everything improved slightly — by a few ranks each — after Karl-Anthony Towns returned to the lineup on March 13.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

As if their numbers down the stretch weren’t similar enough, the Nuggets and Timberwolves split the season series 2-2 with Minnesota gaining the edge with a +5 point differential across those contests. However, it is import to note that while Denver didn’t have Jokić in their blowout loss in Minnesota and that the Nuggets three times played the Wolves on the second night of a back-to-back, Towns did not play in any of the four matchups, which trumps all.

The Timberwolves offense had no issues scoring efficiently against the Nuggets defense, as they averaged 120.5 points, the second-highest average allowed by Denver this season. Here’s a look at how Minnesota’s other offensive numbers graded out among the top seed’s opponents:

Despite that, the Wolves only came away with a pair of wins in large part because they couldn’t generate the necessary stops for the offensive performance to be worth it. The Nuggets scored 122 and 146, respectively, in their two wins, with their starters overwhelming the Timberwolves’ defense. Minnesota didn’t have Gobert in the first of those games, while Anderson missed the second one on the back end of a back-to-back in the team’s final game before the trade deadline.

Heading into the playoff series, these two teams are in two vastly different positions. Minnesota just had to scratch and claw over the last two weeks just to get into the playoffs, while Denver coasted to the finish line and hasn’t played since last Sunday. And as we all know, the Timberwolves blasted the Oklahoma City Thunder 120-95 on Friday night to clinch a spot in the postseason after losing the 7/8 Play-In Game to the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday.

The magnitude of the games Denver has played in over the last month are nowhere near what Minnesota has gone to battle in, because they did their work early in the season, where the Wolves didn’t. Given that Jokić hasn’t played much basketball over the last month (and played below his MVP standard), rust becomes a factor simply because there’s no replicating live NBA action, even in practice.

I’m firmly in the camp that I would much rather come out of the Play-In Tournament with some momentum than be sitting at home for a week. Getting a postseason win under your belt, especially for a Wolves squad that hasn’t played much together, is crucial to building confidence in one another heading into the playoffs.

Look at what happened last year. The Memphis Grizzlies weren’t ready for the punch that the Wolves threw, and Minnesota stole Game 1. It would not surprise me at all if the Wolves took the opening game, because they have nothing to lose, no pressure on them, and are one of seven NBA teams to beat Denver at least twice this season. Not to mention that Minnesota President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly built the core of the Nuggets team and, given his scouting-intensive background, should have a pretty good idea of how to attack his old team.

Here’s what you need to watch for once the series is underway:

Matchups to Watch

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

How the Denver Front-Court Defends Karl-Anthony Towns

Anthony Edwards may take the crown as the Wolves’ best player in this series, but he is not their most important one. Towns is Minnesota’s most dangerous weapon because he can force the Nuggets coaching staff to throw out defensive game plan if he is at the peak of his powers.

Denver has three options for guarding Towns:

1) Nikola Jokić | 6-11 | 285 pounds

Jokić primarily guarded Towns in the past, and Towns has gotten the better of the matchup, shooting 17/30 (56.7%) on 2s and 5/11 (45.5%) on 3s in 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons. When Malone has called Jokić’s number, they have generally let the Joker play him straight up, rather than bringing help either from the middle of the floor or the baseline. That is because they didn’t want to help off of shooters placed around the three-time All-Star, and they wanted Aaron Gordon to stay attached to Edwards.

Another reason is because Towns won’t post up Jokić as much as he did against a small team like the Thunder, for instance, so while Jokić is on him, expect Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch to put Towns in actions that force the MVP to navigate off-ball screens or defend in space.

(If you are reading on Apple News, please click here to see videos in the article and for the best viewing experience).

2) Jeff Green | 6-8 | 235 pounds

Jeff Green will see extensive time guarding Towns because his general rotation pattern will see him on the floor with Towns late in the first/third and early in the second/fourth quarters, and he functions as the team’s 5 in a small-ball lineup while Jokić is on the bench. Green plays bigger than his size because of how strong he is, so while post-ups will certainly be part of Towns’ diet in that matchup, Minnesota can’t rely upon KAT winning that 1-on-1 battle as much as he did on Friday. However, Towns was extremely patient and didn’t force much at all, instead opting to pick the defense apart based on how they played him. A similar approach will be important if the Wolves want to run it up on a very mediocre Nuggets bench. If Green struggles in these situations, Thomas Bryant may see some run, too.

3) Aaron Gordon | 6-8 | 235 pounds

Gordon may also draw Towns here and there, but I expect him to spent most of his energy guarding Edwards on the perimeter. The Nuggets swingman is the only player among the starting group with the size, strength, and lateral quickness to stay with Edwards on the drive, so that will be valuable in trying to slow down the first-time All-Star.

Here’s a look at how Towns has fared against defenders currently on the Nuggets roster in recent years:

Towns holds averages of 24.1 points on 54.0/40.5/85.0 shooting splits, 11.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.4 stocks against the Nuggets since he entered the league, and Jokić has been the only constant on the roster during that time. If KAT can flex his driving and 3-point shooting against Jokić, and function as an efficient offensive hub inside against a forward, he should be able to average 25/10/5 and dominate the half-court like he has in the last three games.

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

The Timberwolves Plan for Nikola Jokić

Simply put, you are not going to stop Jokić. It’s next to impossible.

The two-time reigning MVP has obliterated every current Timberwolves defender over the past three seasons, with Towns and Gobert chief among them.

I loved Finch’s approach in the second games the Wolves played against the Nuggets in January. Rather than trying to completely flummox and shut down Jokić, the Wolves played single coverage on him with Anderson and switched between sitting in the passing lanes and denying the ball in order to limit the damage Jokić inflicted as a passer.

The strategy worked quite well in the first game, as Jokić scored 24 points but had five turnovers and only nine dimes (hilarious to think that’s great for a defense, but it is). Aaron Gordon took 18 shots (four makes, 22.2% FG) with Gobert in a free safety role helping off of him, while Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. only attempted a combined 21 field goals en route to a 124-111 Wolves win.

It didn’t work as well in the second matchup, as Jokić and Murray scored a combined 59 points and dished out 17 assists, but they did hold Gordon, MPJ and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a combined 29 points. Minnesota fell 122-118; while allowing 122 is a bad night for a strong Timberwolves defense, they had every opportunity to hold a seven-point lead for the final 8:00, but their offensive execution crumbled down the stretch.

I expect Finch to deploy a similar strategy for most of the series with Towns on Jokić in single coverage, trusting that the likes of Mike Conley, Edwards, Taurean Prince, and Anderson can all stay solid on the Nuggets’ supporting cast.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves - Play-In Tournament Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Who Wins the Turnover Battle?

These are two teams that struggle to take care of the ball, despite how talented they are offensively. Minnesota is 25th in turnover percentage (15.0%), while Denver is 23rd (14.7%), but have different profiles in terms of their personnel that struggles with turnovers.

All of the Nuggets’ starters have strong on-off turnover numbers; TLDR, the team turns the ball over significantly less with the starters on the floor relative to the bench. The Wolves, on the other hand, find more success in blended lineups. Minnesota turns it over more when Towns and/or Gobert are on the floor, while turning it over less with ball-moving rotation guys like Prince, NAW, Anderson and Nowell.

Minnesota, however, has seen its turnover rate improve by 2.1% with Conley on the floor (94th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass), so being able to put the ball in his hands as much as possible will be paramount.

The Wolves score more points off turnovers per game (18.0) than the Nuggets (15.9), but Malone’s group is more efficient in transition (132.1 offensive rating, third in NBA) than Finch’s (123.8, 24th). Keeping Denver out of transition and in the half-court, where the Wolves have the seventh-ranked defense in the NBA, and limiting their own turnovers on the offensive end is a non-starter if the Wolves want to come away with a series win.


Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves - Play-In Tournament Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Minnesota: Nickeil Alexander-Walker

Alexander-Walker on Friday night put on full display the impact he’s able to have when he puts all of his skills together.

The wiry defensive stopper held his cousin Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to six points on 2/14 shooting (14.3%), just two assists, and did not get whistled for a shooting foul on one of the league’s most prolific scorers. Alexander-Walker stole the ball three times, blocked two shots, and helped on the glass with four rebounds, too. Not only was his on-ball defense excellent, but his work off the ball was equally, if not more, impressive.

That is important as the players he figures to guard most in this series is Murray, who is an excellent both as pick-and-roll scorer and off-ball player relocating and coming off screens for 3-point shots, and averages 24.3 points per game across 33 career playoff games.

Offensively, NAW flashed exactly what makes him a player with legitimate two-way value in high-stakes games. He added 12 points on 3/3 shooting at the rim and 2/7 shooting from deep, as well as six assists. Even though his 38.4% 3-point percentage is probably higher than it would be in a larger sample, the threat of NAW’s deep ball forces defenses to close out to him, which opens up the opportunity for him to utilize his excellent shot fake and attack off the dribble. He is an excellent playmaker on the drive, as his long arms and ambidextrous passing ability enable him to make tricky passes along the baseline both to cutting bigs and corner shooters. Above all else, he makes quick decisions with and without the ball and has been great cutting off of Towns in the post.

I would start him over Kyle Anderson in order to defend Murray (and get a cleaner rotation pattern in that doesn’t require Jordan McLaughlin minutes) but we’ll see what Finch decides to do on Sunday night.

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

Denver: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

Believe it or not, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has the second-most deep playoff experience as a high-end role player of any active Nuggets player, headlined by his run with the Lakers in the bubble title run. Green’s 83 career playoff games lead the Nuggets, but KCP’s six NBA Finals games are most on the team, and experience playing with LeBron James is certainly a big plus.

KCP is a career 37.0% 3-point shooter in 30 playoff games, makes quick decisions, and isn’t afraid of the moment. He scored 17 points in a closeout victory in Game 6 of the 2020 Finals while playing stellar defensive stints guarding Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro and Jimmy Butler.

While Conley has been stellar in the chaser role defensively, someone like KCP who has a quick first step, isn’t shy attacking the rim off the catch, and is significantly bigger than Conley at 6-foot-5, 205 pounds could cause significant problems. Jokić, Murray and Porter Jr. will all be bigger parts of the defensive game plan, which could open the opportunity for Caldwell-Pope to become a big factor throughout the series.

What Will Decide the Series?

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers - Play-In Tournament Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Late-Game Execution

It’s no secret that the Timberwolves have choked in big games as a result of their offense going cold. Minnesota has blown double-digit fourth quarter leads in each of their last four postseason losses, which has left an all-to-familiar feeling inside of Wolves faithful when the scoreboard turns from 3Q to 4Q.

Despite that, there is a clear blueprint the Timberwolves can use for late-game execution: empty pick-and-roll.

“I think everybody’s kind of adopted it now. Rudy and I have used it over the last three or four seasons together. It’s been pretty successful getting into the paint, being able to get the ball moving, kind of just jump starting our offense, and it gives us a little bit of pace to what we do,” Conley told Canis Hoopus postgame on Friday. “We’re just so confident in it that we know we’re going to get something good. We just continue to run it, continue to realize that play has some value to it as far as guys cutting on the weak side, guys being open in the corner. And guys are always ready and confident to knock down the shots when they get the opportunity.”

Here’s what I wrote in a breakdown of the Wolves’ late-game execution in an encouraging win over the Sacramento Kings on the second night of a back-to-back last month:

Conley and Gobert ran the play four straight times because the Sacramento Kings couldn’t stop it in an encouraging victory on the second night of a back-to-back last month. Conley, Jaden McDaniels and Edwards all scored off those plays, because the Timberwolves did an excellent job of diversifying their attack out of the primary action. This is why Finch worships at the altar of “randomness.” Sure, a defense can prep for side PnR, but when you add unscripted baseline drives, cuts, and off-ball movement into the equation, it is quite literally impossible to account for.

Better yet, the Nuggets have similar personnel to the Kings: a poor defensive point guard and a slow-footed big man that struggles to defend in space. Engaging Murray and Jokić in as many actions as possible late in games will be very important in the Timberwolves generating clean scoring looks not only for Conley or Gobert, but also Towns as a spot-up shooter and Edwards as a dangerous threat playing off the catch.

Finding repeatable actions against the league’s third-ranked clutch defense will be important if the Wolves want to be able to confidently close games rather than play not to lose until the final buzzer sounds. The Timberwolves’ late-game half-court defense can carry them to wins, and has been elite of late, but deserves a far better fate than the one the Minnesota offense sealed against the Lakers.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers - Play-In Tournament Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

3-Point Shooting

The Timberwolves shot 16/41 (39%) from deep against the Lakers and 13/32 (41%) in a win over the Thunder, which built upon the team shooting 39.2% after the All-Star break, the second-best mark in the NBA. Denver, meanwhile, shot 34.5% in the same span (22nd).

Turning the game into a math equation was a successful strategy for the Wolves in the win over the New Orleans Pelicans (shot 15 more 3s than NOP and made 10 more) and in the first three quarters of the Lakers win, before they settled for bad 2s and turned it over in the fourth quarter.

Here’s how the frequency numbers break down

The Nuggets score 54.9% of their points from 2, sixth-highest in the league, and


  • 54.9% of points from 2 (sixth in NBA)
  • 30.6% of points from 3 (20th)
  • 14.5% of points from free throws (27th)


  • 53.0% of points from 2 (14th in NBA)
  • 31.5% of points from 3 (15th)
  • 15.5% of points from free throws (23rd)

Minnesota is a more balanced scoring team in terms of where they get score, but Denver is a more efficient team overall (fifth in offense, MIN is 23rd). Where the Wolves can overcome the efficiency gap is simply by shooting a significantly higher amount of 3s than the Nuggets.

The Wolves went 28-17 in the regular season when they outscored their opponent from the 3-point line (14-23 when they didn’t), and 28-12 when they shot a better percentage from deep than their opponent (14-28 when they didn’t).

The Nuggets put up an absurd 33-9 record when they won the 3-point makes battle (20-20 when they didn’t), and an even better 39-9 when they won the percentage game (14-21 when they didn’t).

Manufacturing more 3-point looks than the Nuggets and making a higher percentage of them will be pivotal as the series progresses.


Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves - Play-In Tournament Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Series Prediction

This is a much, much closer matchup than Vegas and ESPN experts are giving it credit for. The Timberwolves are +370 to win the series according to DraftKings Sportsbook, which carries an implied win probability of about 21.28%. ESPN, meanwhile, isn’t much of a believer in the Wolves at all. All 17 members of their panel chose the Nuggets.

Give me the Timberwolves in 6.

Minnesota doesn’t have McDaniels or Reid, who are huge losses, but have been able to make up for them with the emergence of Alexander-Walker and crafty rotation work from Finch, respectively. Towns should completely dominate this series offensively, and if the two-big concept force Denver to play outside the paint (where they are much less efficient) more than they are accustomed to, they will struggle to score. Keep in mind that Conley led the No. 8 Grizzlies over the No. 1 Spurs in 2011, so if anyone knows how it can be done, it’s Conley. This is a bet that... gulp.... the gap between Minnesota’s offense and Denver’s offense is closer than the respective defenses (where the Wolves have a big advantage), and that the Wolves’ star power will outperform that of the Nuggets.

DraftKings Odds

Let’s get into some series props from our friends over at DraftKings Sportsbook.

If you want to ride my Wolves in 6 pick, you can get that for +950, meaning a $10 bet would win $95.10 if it cashed. I’ll get into some different ones you can get before the series tips off Sunday night.

Wolves to win Game 1 and the series +850

Minnesota’s best chance of winning the series comes if they are able to steal Game 1 and regain home-court advantage. They won Game 1 in Memphis last year under very similar circumstances of the Grizzlies struggling, their star not playing much down the stretch, and no one giving them any chance to win. Not to mention they are coming off their best performance with their Big 3 all together since Towns’ return. The Wolves are +7.5 (-110) for Game 1, with a moneyline of +245.

Karl-Anthony Towns 30+ points in Game 1 +320

Towns absolutely loves playing the Nuggets, as I’ve outlined above. He’s gone over this mark in two of his last three games played against Denver and scored a cool 28 points on 16 shots in only 29 minutes on Friday. He looks as healthy as he has since returning from injury, and should get plenty of looks to let it rip from deep with Jokić guarding him.

Karl-Anthony Towns to lead the series in scoring +550

While we’re here, we might as well. Murray is going to take a ton of shots and Jokić is a playmaker by nature. The Joker could very easily have a game where he scores 14 points, but has 16 assists, too. Expect Towns to be the Wolves’ most efficient scorer and most confident player offensively.

Anthony Edwards to have a double-double in Game 1 +900

Yes, I know this is a long shot. But Denver is going to crash the offensive boards like crazy against a Minnesota team that struggles to generate transition looks off live ball defensive rebounds. Edwards has 31 rebounds in his last three games and will should continue to be an active participant on the backboards in order to prevent second chances.

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