Opportunities to beat elite teams don’t come around often in the NBA. The Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t put themselves in many positions to beat those top squads this season, but they blew an opportunity to do so Wednesday night.
The Wolves led the Western Conference-leading Denver Nuggets by five with 2:31 remaining in the fourth quarter. From there, they missed four 3-pointers, turned the ball over twice and watched Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic get whatever they wanted on the other end. The Nuggets went on a 9-0 run to win 122-118 for their eighth straight win, sending Minnesota home empty-handed.
The loss will sting all the more because the Wolves probably shouldn’t have been in danger of blowing the game in the first place. Twice — once to end the second quarter and once to end the third — Minnesota was able to force Jokic, a candidate for a third-straight MVP, to the bench with foul trouble. The Wolves only won that 10:34 total time by six points and allowed Murray to account for 21 points.
If Minnesota had buckled down and dominated those non-Jokic minutes, Denver likely wouldn’t have had the chance to storm back and take the lead in the final minutes.
It didn’t help that Minnesota got feeble showings from its two leading playmakers. Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell combined for 29 points on 11-of-25 shooting with 10 assists and seven turnovers. Many of their turnovers and poor shot attempts came at the worst times as the Nuggets were going on runs; they simply weren’t a match for the combined star power of Jokic and Murray, who combined for 59 points on 22-of-38 shooting.
Minnesota kept this game close despite Russell and Edwards’ issues, though, because it got some key contributions from secondary sources.
With Rudy Gobert out, Naz Reid, Luka Garza and Nathan Knight were the only ones left to take on Nikola Jokic, who entered the night having made his previous 20 2-point field goal attempts. And all three got battered, both literally and figuratively, as Jokic imposed his size and strength in a 31-point, 11-rebound, 13-assist performance.
But the big guys landed some shots of their own. Reid utilized his athleticism to draw fouls and energize Minnesota’s defense. He finished with 17 points, including a 9-of-10 mark at the free throw line.
Garza got toasted repeatedly, but he also did a good job making himself available behind the 3-point line, knocking down three of five long-range attempts. Jokic turned Knight into a foul machine in their first minutes matched up together, but Knight returned the favor with a transition and-one that sat Jokic down for the end of the third quarter with four fouls.
Throughout this tumultuous season, Minnesota’s trio of forwards — Kyle Anderson, Jaden McDaniels and Taurean Prince — have been the Wolves’ most reliable performers when they’re available. Perhaps that’s because they aren’t asked to do as much as an Edwards or a Russell, but the three were excellent again in Denver.
McDaniels was the best of the bunch, shrugging off some early turnovers to score a team-high 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting while providing his usual stellar defense. This game was a great example of the increasing frequency with which McDaniels makes game-breaking plays; he blocked multiple jump shots and flashed some nice self-creation against stout defenders.
This is Jaden McDaniels using his shifty handle to toast one of the best forward defenders in the league. This is legit. pic.twitter.com/aG1uAQ3jYh— Aidan Berg (@AidanBerg_) January 19, 2023
Anderson nearly had a triple-double (13 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists) and contributed four steals. And Prince provided his usual calming presence off the bench and nailed key shots along the way, including a few to start the fourth quarter.
In a contest whose physical and emotional nature led to 46 total foul calls, the Wolves didn’t help themselves by committing a few boneheaded ones. Denver took a slight edge in free throw production, but more importantly, the fouling prevented Minnesota from defending with any aggression down the stretch. Reid, Garza and Knight combined for 14 fouls, and it was obviously on their minds as Jokic repeatedly backed into easy buckets in the fourth quarter.
That, combined with 19 turnovers, exemplified the composure that remains absent on this squad. The Wolves still have not learned how to consistently grab games by the horns and put them away. Until they do, top teams such as Denver will remain multiple levels above them.
Minnesota returns to Target Center Thursday night to host the Toronto Raptors.