I was thrilled to be taking on a film review article following Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Denver Nuggets.
Some would say these two teams aren’t totally indicative of their seedings based on talent and recent play, but we saw the best of Denver and the worst of Minnesota in a 109-80 Nuggets blowout late Sunday night. That calls for slight straw-grasping when it comes to the positives for the Wolves on both ends of the floor, something I didn’t totally anticipate.
The kicker sentence for this piece could simply be, “The Timberwolves just need to play and shoot better, period.” But that wouldn’t provide much value, so let’s dive in and look at some key plays and concepts that could help swing things back in Minnesota’s favor by Game 2 Wednesday.
Positive: Anthony Edwards, The Pick-and-Roll Threat
The best source of offense for Minnesota throughout the game was spreading the floor and utilizing pick-and-roll, especially early in the possession.
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Nikola Jokić is the deserved two-time, and maybe three-time, MVP. But he is completely disinterested in guarding the Minnesota ball-handlers in space. He’s playing drop coverage in these Anthony Edwards ball screens, allowing Ant to take up vertical space and either smash into Jokić’s chest for a rim finish (first clip) or establish a rhythm in the midrange jumper game (last two clips).
Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch doesn’t start the offense with static high ball screens. His flow offense is contingent on player and ball movement — an inherently altruistic venture — but Minnesota has struggled to gain an advantage by putting two defenders on the ball and finding the open man in that scheme.
The numbers last night didn’t bear out efficient offense in these sets. Frankly, no play type did have sustained success throughout the game. But I think if the Wolves want to go toe-to-toe with Denver’s shotmaking, it involves giving Anthony Edwards a downhill push with a Gobert screen — something they haven’t done enough of all year. Edwards is clearly not the biggest fan of actually using Gobert as a roller in these situations, but he might not have to with Denver’s lack of activity loading to the ball like they showed last night.
Positive: Veteran Patience
When we consider what’s working and what’s not working, hardly ever is Kyle Anderson falling into the latter category. Same with Mike Conley. Slow-Mo’s creative floater finishing and Conley’s ability to extend a play and find the open man are going to be huge factors in Minnesota’s offense keeping stability.
It’s easy to tell there’s purpose and deliberation behind everything this duo does. The best offensive teams and players know what they do best and don’t try to make something out of nothing. Compared to some of the things Karl-Anthony Towns and even Anthony Edwards attempt game-to-game (and those two are great individual scorers in their own right), everything feels so simple and smooth for mature players like Anderson and Conley.
For Conley, spamming pick-and-roll for him makes a ton of sense. He’s still slippery enough to flick the floater over a rim protector or Nash-dribble to locate the open spot-up shooter when the defense collapses in the paint. He only got five shot attempts in Game 1 and that’s definitely not enough.
Anderson’s viability as a screener and short roller came to life a couple of times against Jokić’s drop coverage. He’s the perfect spray guy to make a play out of that action for someone else, or score in the 10-foot range. These guys need more touches in Game 2.
Negative: KAT’s Early Shot Diet
Towns’ first-quarter shot selection was more forced than natural. Here are his misses as he tried to get in a groove:
I am as big a fan as anyone of Karl getting hot from downtown, but the first couple of attempts here are just not in rhythm. His drives were met with walled-up Nugget defenders and he flung unbalanced floaters looking for contact. KAT’s two first-half makes were on vintage jump hooks over his left-shoulder.
The Wolves haven’t posted up Karl enough since his return. According to Synergy, he averaged 2.45 post-up touches per game in the 11 contests he played to close the regular season. Good things happen when he has single coverage on the block or the defense doubles and has to be in rotation when he kicks it out.
If Minnesota wants to get Jokić in foul trouble — something that really needs to happen if the Wolves want to steal a couple games in the series — his scoring attempts should be placed in smaller spaces, closer to the basket.
Negative: Transition Defense
The Nuggets were tied for first in the NBA in transition scoring efficiency this season at 1.21 points per possession, per NBA Stats. Mixing in bad isolation offense and shot selection led to runouts for Denver that effectively put the game away in the third quarter.
The Wolves are not a great offensive rebounding team. There’s no reason for them to be standing at the three-point line watching a bad shot go up and not put a priority on defending the rim the other way. Denver scored 1.33 points per possession in transition last night according to Synergy. That’s a great recipe for getting blown out.
The Wolves are shorthanded and gassed. I get it. Nevertheless, everything is connected: put up a shot outside the flow of the offense or in a low percentage spot on the floor, you’ll be exposed going the other way against a team full of shooters, dunkers and the best damn facilitator in the National Basketball Association.
Bonus Negative: Missing McDaniels
I truly believe a healthy Jaden McDaniels could have swung this series.
The Wolves were missing a threat at the rim from the wing positions badly last night. It’s a spot where McDaniels thrives: he was a killer in the midrange-to-short areas with funky angles, leans and floaters against lengthy defenders and ability to reach to the rim from bad positioning.
At the minimum, having Jaden around to cover Michael Porter Jr. or Jamal Murray would have been one less defensive assignment to worry about. I think the loss of McDaniels offensively is just even more distinct. Replacing him with one-dimensional drivers like Taurean Prince and less-capable spacers like Nickeil Alexander-Walker hurts pretty badly. Jaden’s off-ball aggression takes pressure off of Edwards and Towns to create offense, and without it, the Denver defense can turn their eyes and feet toward loading up on Minnesota’s primary shot creators.
Will we see Game 2 adjustments to both the good and bad? It might be what determines the viability of the roster or the coaching staff come next October.