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NBA Playoffs: Matchups to Watch in Wolves vs. Nuggets

With theoretical “even” matchups all over the floor, who can gain the edge or outclass their defender in the Wolves/Nuggets first round series?

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

The Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets spilt their regular season series, with each team earning two wins. Two games finished in blowouts — one for each team — and the other two games were relatively close. In Minnesota’s blowout win, Denver was without two-time MVP Nikola Jokić, and in Denver’s blowout win, Minnesota was without Karl-Anthony Towns (KAT actually didn’t play in any of the four games vs. Denver this season).

Both the Timberwolves and Nuggets have versatile defenders, but the Wolves will be missing a huge piece with Jaden McDaniels out for the series. Bruce Brown, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Aaron Gordon will each impose their will on Minnesota’s stars, making for an exciting an exciting first round matchup.

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

The Elephant in the Room (in the paint?)

The first and most obvious matchup will be Jokić and Rudy Gobert battling down low, theoretically giving the Wolves a solid buffer against the Nuggets’ big man. Few teams have an interior presence that is capable of slowing down the back-to-back MVP in the paint, and even fewer teams have someone that can also follow Jokić to the high post/elbow area and hold their own away from the basket. Gobert should be able to limit paint scoring, but Jokić’s ability to pull him from the paint with his shooting and midrange game makes things a bit more difficult defensively for Minnesota. And in terms of general speed and quickness, Jokić clearly has the edge.

The three-time Defensive Player of the Year loses much of his value once drawn out to the perimeter, where he can’t protect the rim. If Denver makes a conscious effort to let Jokić play away from the basket with Gobert on the floor, they’ll likely find success. If they choose to play in the paint, the Frenchman should be able to hold his own.

The Timberwolves could also opt to put Kyle Anderson on Jokić and have Gobert lurk in the paint, giving more agility guarding the big man, but may allow Jokić to use his strength and size to play through Anderson.

Just 13% of Jokić’s shot attempts were from beyond the arc in 2022-23, the lowest mark of his career. He also shot 44% of his shot attempts at the rim (less than four feet), the highest percentage since his second NBA season, according to Cleaning The Glass.

It doesn’t mean he’s not shooting well from 3-point land (38% this year) — and does not mean he can’t space the floor — it just tells us he’s taking fewer shots from deep (~ two per game). At that pace, Gobert might not be pulled away from the rim too much, but i’d expect Michael Malone to make it a point of emphasis in the series.

In the other front-court matchup, Towns will spend plenty of time opposite Gordon. The Arizona product certainly has the versatility and size to make life difficult for KAT. However, similar to Jokić pulling Gobert away from the basket, Towns should be able live on the perimeter and keep Gordon from providing too much help defense.

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

Battle in the Back-Court

Jamal Murray is another potent offensive threat, and warrants a combination of Anthony Edwards, Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker to guard him.

Conley has recently been the player assigned with chasing the opposing team’s shooter(s), most recently hounding Trey Murphy III against the New Orleans Pelicans.

With Murray being 6-foot-4 and not overpoweringly strong, Conley seems to be a serviceable on-ball defender against Murray, especially when rotating in Alexander-Walker and Edwards.

On the other end of the floor, Denver has a strong rotation of perimeter defenders that can give the Wolves problems. Caldwell-Pope will be able to periodically check Conley and Edwards, as can Brown. Both are 6-foot-5 and capable of sticking with their man when guarding the ball.

On offense Caldwell-Pope and Brown shoot 42% and 36% from deep, respectively, making KCP a dangerous outside threat and Brown still someone you have to guard.

Chicago Bulls v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Minnesota hasn’t been a great rebounding team this season (26th in rebound rate), and it was more evident than ever when Gordon pulled down 12 offensive rebounds in the game on Jan. 2. With Gobert and Towns both on the floor in this series, they can hopefully keep Gordon off the offensive glass. If not, second chance points will surely be an area where Denver can gain an advantage.

X-Factor Michael Porter Jr.

It feels as if both teams have a theoretical answer for their opponent’s star players, with one exception.

Had McDaniels been healthy, Micael Porter Jr.’s defender would be solidified, but without their defensive stud the Wolves will look for a backup option for the offensively-gifted forward.

Taurean Prince and Kyle Anderson seem like logical choices, but neither have a neutralizing affect similar to McDaniels. Anderson is likely too slow to keep up with Porter Jr., making Prince the option that makes more sense.

2023 Play-In Tournament - Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

The starting lineup has varied recently depending on matchup, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Prince return to the starting five for at least Game 1 of the series.

Each team has at least a good initial answer for the opposition’s strengths, whether that be Gobert matching Jokić on the interior (TBD outside of the paint), Gordon being quick and strong enough to bother Towns, Caldwell-Pope and Brown capable of pestering Edwards, Conley/Edwards able to check Murray, etc.

However, they are just theoretical solutions. We’ll see just how they pan out once the Wolves and Nuggets take the floor at Ball Arena on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. CT.