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Wolves 110, Nuggets 89: Conley’s Third Quarter Key to Blowout Win

Mike Conley scored 17 points, including 10 in the third quarter, to help sustain a 19-point Timberwolves halftime lead and power Minnesota past Denver.

Denver Nuggets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Coming off a disappointing collapse in Atlanta on Monday night, the Minnesota Timberwolves returned home on Wednesday to a crowd eager to see their favorite team put together a better effort against the 4-0 defending champion Denver Nuggets.

Head Coach Chris Finch said pregame that Denver is a team that starts fast and Minnesota would need to be ready to roll early, and his squad followed through.

The Wolves harnessed the energy of the arena into connected, active and disciplined defense that held the Nuggets to 0/9 shooting to start the game. Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns in particular were tremendous at contesting shots without fouling, which forced the Nuggets to start settling for inefficient jumpers. On the other end, Minnesota did a great job of working the ball to where each player likes to operate from. Anthony Edwards got the ball in the slots; Karl-Anthony Towns got it above the break; Mike Conley handled it coming off pick-and-rolls with Rudy Gobert; and Jaden McDaniels got it at the free throw line extended, where he can elevate over smaller defenders.

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

As a result, Minnesota built an 18-4 lead by the 5:52 mark of the quarter. Two-time MVP Nikola Jokić grew frustrated and became more evidently aggressive and physical offensively, which Towns, his matchup, reciprocated defensively. The result was Towns picking up his second foul of the quarter; he exited and the tenor of the game changed.

Denver crawled back into it with Jokić making some jumpers and Nuggets role players mixing in buckets in relief, while the Timberwolves took some ill-advised shots; Minnesota made enough to hold a healthy 28-21 lead after one period.

Towns re-entered to begin the second quarter and tried to force the issue a bit too much, engaging in post-ups and taking difficult shots. He ended up on the ground or not hustling back several times in the first four minutes of the frame and the Nuggets consistently played in 5-on-4 or 4-on-3 situations and got easy looks as a result. To KAT’s credit, he responded nicely with two consecutive buckets off of inexplicable Jokić turnovers, a straight away 3 atop the key, a pair of tough and-1s, and some well-earned tough buckets inside to buoy Minnesota and grow the lead. Even better, he did not commit another personal foul in the quarter while still making things tough on Jokić, and finished the first half with an efficient 15 points.

McDaniels continued his strong showing defensively by making Jamal Murray work east-to-west and keeping him out of the paint. Murray was bothered by McDaniels’ length, and settled for tough jumpers; the All-Star point guard finished the half with just two points on 0/9 shooting. Murray’s inability to score 1-on-1 also forced more passing around the perimeter and created opportunities for pick-sixes. It was the type of performance that makes you question how different that first-round playoff series could’ve been with him out there. Naz Reid, who also missed that series, played a key part of the festivities, too; he scored 10 important, lead-sustaining points in 10 minutes to take advantage of Denver playing 6-foot-9 forward Zeke Nnaji as their backup 5.

Denver tried to chip away, Minnesota led 63-44 at the break thanks to an explosive, buzzer-beating jam from Edwards to cap off a 16-point half for him.

Not to mention that holding Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon to a combined six points on 2/15 shooting certainly helped.

The Timberwolves didn’t making any progress in exorcizing their third quarter demons immediately out of the halftime locker room. After a dominant stint to open the game, the Wolves starters again looked sluggish and it bogged down their half-court offense. Denver put together an 8-3 run to cut the lead down to 16, as Jokić began to barrage the Wolves’ interior defense with buttery soft touch shots and the Target Center crowd grew palpably anxious.

It was a similar script to Monday night except for one key variable: Conley wasn’t battling food poisoning.

I spoke in the pregame locker room with Conley, who said he didn’t each much for 48 hours and was in a rough place during Monday night’s TV timeouts. He was able to eat again on Tuesday night and felt much better leading up to the game on Wednesday.

That was a difference for the Wolves, who badly needed his calming and organizing presence in the half-court offense. Conley repeatedly engaged Gobert and Towns in screen and roll actions to generate clean looks for himself and others, and was very opportunistic as a scorer. Denver seemed fine letting Conley roll into open floaters and get to the baseline, where he was able to kick the ball to the opposite corner and get the ball swinging. Even when the trusted veteran didn’t shoot out of PnR, the ball found its way back to him to knock down a pair of open 3s. His 10 points in the third quarter were pivotal at a time when the team’s big three was unable to impact the game with their scoring.

“For sure (I was looking to be aggressive). Especially, the last game I didn’t have it physically to do that and tonight I felt way better. Felt like I could just go and be myself. I just tried to be aggressive when we needed it,” Conley said in the postgame locker room. “Felt good about it and the team is pushing me to do it. They want me to make plays for guys, too. It was just the timing and it worked out.”

“We do have a few plays that involve me and Rudy, Ant, KAT that you just try to settle yourself into and if we can find ourselves into those more times than not, when leads start to slip, or they have a couple bad possessions, we normally come out all right,” he added. “I’m just trying to do my best to find those opportunities, take advantage of them.”

After McDaniels picked up his fourth foul — in what was a tough stretch of defensive possessions for him that included an ill-advised flagrant 1 on Jamal Murray — at the 6:29 mark of the third quarter, Kyle Anderson entered the game and played point guard over the final four minutes of the quarter. Slow-Mo helped the offense create clean looks and once again was excellent on every possession deciding whether to attack to score or attack to play make for others. He added a pair of buckets and also worked to get Reid involved once again.

Despite Denver flexing their offensive muscles and threatening to get back in the game, Conley and Anderson kept the Wolves’ boat afloat, as Minnesota led 89-72 after three.

“We’ve talked about maintaining our structure, maybe being more of a set-play team at times, things that we absolutely have to do. Get the ball in [Mike’s] hands. Get the ball in Kyle’s hands at the right times,” Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch said about his two veteran handlers. “[Mike] has really good command on what he’s doing out there, of course, as you’d expect. But we also have a package of plays now that we know that we really want to get to. It’s almost like a safety blanket.”

That is certainly encouraging to hear from the coach of a team who desperately needs reliable go-to actions that can repeatedly punish defenses and re-establish an offensive rhythm.

From there, the Wolves relied upon Reid to attack a clear mismatch offensively — Peyton Watson. He went right at the 6-foot-7 first-year rotation player for a score and a shooting foul, adding four points that helped the Wolves maintain a three touchdown lead, only for the starters to re-enter and close the door.

“For some reason, it seems like when [Naz] posts up he’s scoring every time now,” Edwards said postgame. “I don’t know if it’s because he’s been in the weight room but I’m liking it, I’m loving it, actually. We need him, he’s big time.”

Finch emptied the bench with 5:13 left to play and the Wolves up 99-78, and his role players carried that 21-point lead to a 110-89 finishing tally.

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

An Important Bounce-Back

It is never easy to get the taste of a meltdown like Monday out of your mouth. But the Timberwolves did exactly that on Wednesday in front of a crowd that clearly hadn’t forgotten what the few fans able to actually watch the Bally Sports North broadcast witnessed. Showings like this against the defending champions are certainly ones to hold onto and look to as a blueprint as the season marches on.

“The maturity comes when you stack performances like this on top of each other. So that remains to be seen. But this was a great focused effort. Executed everything that we talked about really well at a high level,” Finch said. “Defensively, I thought Rudy and Jaden McDaniels were outstanding. They kind of set the tone there. And offensively we did what we had to do when we had to do it and took advantage of what we thought we could take advantage of.”

Conley has seen plenty of teams get knocked down and respond in all sorts of ways throughout his 16-year NBA career. But even in year 17, games like these still serve as important opportunities for players to learn about the guys they go to battle with.

“Yeah, that was the test for us. Obviously, we let one get away in Atlanta and for our maturity, the way we came back and our mentality coming into this game, it was going to show one way or another and I feel like we passed that test,” Conley said. “We came in and just competed. No complaints. Guys did their job. Did the little things and did it for four quarters, which is most important.”

Anthony Edwards’ approach was an important piece of that, as well.

“Starting with myself, just can’t come out being selfish, worrying about however many points I wanna score. Just playing within the game, playing within the flow, I think that’s the main thing with me,” he said in an earnest tone, with a patented smile on his face.

“I be worried so much about scoring and how many points I got and how many points I’m tryin to get instead of just worrying about the little things — rebounding, boxing out, getting back on D. So tonight I wasn’t really worried about scoring, I was just worrying about what we can do to win the game. So I think if I come out with the mentality of not worrying about points, we’ll be alright.”

Edwards’ final stat line of 24 points on 8/16 shooting, two rebounds, one assist and a pair of steals may not show it, but he certainly wasn’t playing iso ball and trying to force his imprint on the game like he did in the second half of Monday’s loss in his native Atlanta. He got off the ball early, let it come back to him, and dictated where he attacked based on what type of matchup he had. As a result, things came easily for him, he got to the line eight times, the Wolves’ offense maintained a consistent rhythm, and the team sailed to the finish line with a healthy lead.

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

Another Strong Defensive Showing Against Jokić

The Timberwolves once again aligned their defensive structure the way they did in last year’s playoff series against the Nuggets: Conley chasing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Edwards guarding Porter Jr., Gobert sagging off Gordon and lurking around the rim, and Towns taking the Jokić matchup. But swapping in McDaniels for Nickeil Alexander-Walker on Murray was a huge key.

McDaniels’ length gave Murray fits for the jump, which quickly forced the burden onto Jokić’s shoulders. The reigning Finals MVP went right at Towns a number of times, but the three-time All-Star held his ground, got physical with Jokić and contested shots well while his teammates helped him on the glass.

“Of course you get up for those chances to guard the best,” Towns said. “I wanted the challenge. I took the challenge. I’m happy that I was able to make things difficult for him. You’re never fully going to be able to stop a player of that caliber. But you make it very tough on him all night and that’s what I wanted to do.”

The strategy of having Towns match up with Jokić and Gobert lurking in the help off of Gordon has worked very well for the Timberwolves since they went to it in the playoffs last season.

Towns was the primary defender on Jokić in Game 5 — in which Jokić shot 8/29 (27.6%) from the floor and 5/21 on 2-pointers — and used that experience to pitch another fantastic game tonight: KAT held the Joker to 11/23 (47.8%) shooting, including 1/6 from deep. Towns also stole the ball from Jokić twice, both of which turned into Wolves points on the other end.

Keep in mind that last season in his 69 regular season games played, Jokić shot under 50% three times. Towns has now held the Nuggets star under that mark twice in a row. Having Gobert behind him as a security blanket certainly helps, but Towns tries not to think about it too much.

“It’s huge when you have one of the best defensive players of all time. I didn’t want to try to make him have to use his talent too much,” Towns said. “I wanted to be able to keep [Jokić] out the paint, utilize my feet, my quickness and make it difficult for him to touch the paint. Just doing whatever it took to stop the head of the snake for the Nuggets.”

So if Towns tries not to send Jokić into Gobert’s contests, why is it still successful?

“I think [Rudy’s] really good at the rim. If they’re going to put Gordon at the rim, we’re going to put Rudy at the rim, but it all comes down to everybody else doing their part. It’s not just as easy as that,” Finch said. “We have the luxury of having multiple guys that we can put on those guys, whether it be Kyle and Naz, too, and all of them. Just like when you have a great perimeter scorer and you want to throw multiple defenders at him, I think one of our luxuries is that we can actually use our size where they’re really good.”

Most importantly, Towns frustrated Jokić, who let that affect his play on both ends of the court. KAT definitely did his job on defense, and added 21 points on 7/19 shooting (6/6 FT), eight rebounds and four assists to pair with it.

Next Up

The Timberwolves will get a couple days of practice in before returning to Target Center to host the Utah Jazz on Saturday. Fans can watch the 7 PM CT tip on Bally Sports North.

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