It takes a lot to win road games in the NBA Playoffs. One of the prerequisites is playing well in more than just one quarter.
The Minnesota Timberwolves battled their way back from a 15-point halftime deficit with a 40-23 third quarter Wednesday night against the Denver Nuggets, entering the final frame with a two-point lead. The reason they lost 122-113 and fell into a 2-0 hole? Denver won the other three quarters a whopping 99-73.
The Wolves found themselves in that halftime hole because of fundamental shortcomings. Call them effort breakdowns, call them basic responsibilities; whatever term you use, the Wolves didn’t do much of anything resembling an NBA basketball team in the first half of Game 2, much less a playoff team.
Perhaps the most galling number of the many in Denver’s favor from the first half was its 19-3 edge in fast-break points. Whereas the Nuggets walled off on defense and transitioned seamlessly to attacking with the ball, the Wolves were stagnant on offense and lifeless when getting back to defend. The Nuggets shot 60% from the field in the first half; the Wolves shot 39%.
Karl-Anthony Towns’ playoff struggles have never been on clearer display than in the first two quarters. The Wolves’ star big man gave the ball away repeatedly and struggled to take advantage of smaller defenders inside; he didn’t make a field goal until the 10:30 mark of the third quarter.
The issue in the fourth quarter was, as it often has been over the last two seasons, composure. Minnesota had the opportunity to finish strong and go back home tied 1-1, but frustration with officiating begot defensive breakdowns begot poorly-timed offensive mistakes.
Rudy Gobert pushed Nikola Jokić in the back on a rebound for his fifth foul and picked up a tech for running back demonstrably. Jokić and Jamal Murray sold some contact and got rewarded with whistles, adding to Minnesota’s ire. Towns nearly bludgeoned an official while demonstrating how he was elbowed by Jokić after the two picked up a double-foul.
(That last one didn’t change the game much, I just wanted an excuse to show you what was nearly an infamous moment in NBA history. Ed Malloy’s head would have gone rolling like Jango Fett’s.)
KAT was VERY close to elbowing the ref in the face pic.twitter.com/OXENZxQKLn— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) April 20, 2023
Yes, there were many iffy calls on the night, but some of them went in Minnesota’s favor. The real issue is that the Wolves continue to let officiating take them out of their game more than seemingly any other team in the league. That can’t happen at this time of year.
It’s a particular shame the Wolves couldn’t find a way to win this game, because that third frame was as good as it gets. Minnesota finally figured out how to punish Denver’s defensive scheme with more pick-and-roll actions and rim attacks. Anthony Edwards (more on him in a bit) lived in the lane and turned that rhythm into scintillating displays of one-on-one scoring. Towns finally locked in and made quicker decisions with the ball, while Gobert provided vertical spacing.
Everyone fell in line on defense to make the Nuggets’ possessions a living hell. They flipped the script on Denver, turning takeaways and misses into up-tempo, easy points. The Nuggets barely had time to catch their breath before the Wolves had come roaring all the way back.
It’s just one quarter, and the NBA playoffs are no time for moral victories. But it showed there are advantages to be had against the Nuggets. With the way the other seven frames have gone in this series, at least that’s something.
Before this series began, I predicted for Canis Hoopus that one of Games 3 or 4 would feature both Edwards and Jamal Murray going for 50 on the same night in a callback to Murray’s duels with Donovan Mitchell in the bubble. Given the long-shot nature of that prediction, I’m calling this a “close enough” win.
Edwards (41 points, 14-of-23 FG, 6-of-10 3P, seven-of-eight FT) and Murray (40 points, 13-of-22 FG, 6-of-10 3P, eight-of-nine FT) put on an unbelievable scoring exhibition in Denver. It was about as hot as you’ll see two opposing players in the same game, and it was a pleasure to watch.
Edwards put in a Herculean shift to drag the Wolves back into the game, scoring 27 second-half points and putting the fear of God in Jokić and every other Nugget whenever he attacked the basket. It was by far the best game Edwards has played in some time as he has been hampered by nagging injuries and fatigue at the end of a long season. This is the Ant the world saw against Memphis last postseason, and he needs to be here to stay if the Wolves want a prayer of winning this series.
Of course, allowing an efficient 40 to an opposing player is a great way for a team to squander a performance like that from one of their own. Murray led the Nuggets to that blistering start with 14 first-quarter points then went shot for shot with Edwards en route to 22 of his own in the second half, including a few daggers in the final minutes. The Wolves continued to struggle mightily with Murray and Jokić’s high screen actions, and until they find a way to cut down on Murray’s airspace, he will keep torching them.
And so it’s back to Target Center for a must-win Game 3 on ESPN Friday night at 8:30 p.m. CST. The Wolves finally found some answers in that third quarter after looking completely nonplussed by the Nuggets through 1.5 games. They have to turn those answers into consistent performances to get back in this series.