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Wolves 128, Nuggets 98: A Fitting, Business-Like Win in McLaughlin’s Return

The Timberwolves cruised against a short-handed Nuggets squad behind a team-high 20 points from Anthony Edwards in Jordan McLaughlin’s return.

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

There was no better way for the Minnesota Timberwolves to welcome back Jordan McLaughlin (left calf strain) after a 30-game absence than to take care of business, because that’s all the beloved point guard does. Anthony Edwards’ team-high 20 points powered Minnesota to a wire-to-wire, stress-free 128-98 disposal of a Denver Nuggets squad missing four of its five starters, including two-time MVP Nikola Jokić (hamstring). The 30-point margin is the Wolves’ most lopsided win of the season.

The fan favorite checked into the game at the 2:54 mark of the first quarter for his first action since December 9 against the Utah Jazz, and received a hero’s welcome back:

Video from Bally Sports North

It may not come through clearly, but the reception was incredibly loud in the arena.

“Yeah I definitely feel the love from the fans. I go out there and play hard, and that’s what a lot of people want to see most of the time – somebody playing hard and playing the right way,” McLaughlin said of his ovation. “That’s what I look to do, and fans appreciate it and I appreciate them.”

Return of the (J-)Mac

Fans felt the long-awaited sense of security McLaughlin brings from the moment he stepped onto the floor in the first quarter. J-Mac drew an offensive foul by fighting over a screen on his first possession of the game before assisting on a Naz Reid 3-pointer on the other end of the court. By halftime, McLaughlin was a +16 in just 6:04 of play. Conversely, D’Angelo Russell was a 0, despite scoring 14 first quarter points.

“It was good to just see him back on the floor,” Wolves forward Jaden McDaniels said postgame. “I mean, he can control the whole game when he’s on the bench, on the court, just a great floor general.”

Each player moved with a greater confidence in what they were doing simply because McLaughlin was alongside them. The comfort he delivers with his presence consistently supersedes whatever feelings his teammates had — good, bad or otherwise — for the better.

Jaylen Nowell is a perfect example. Entering Sunday, Nowell averaged 10.1 points on 44.6/22.7/72.3 shooting splits in the 30 games since McLaughlin went down on December 9. Like it did last night, Nowell’s efficiency jumps with J-Mac beside him; Nowell averaged 11.4 points on 44.1/31.9/81.8 shooting in the 18 games he played with his former Iowa Wolves teammate earlier in the season.

“He’s a scorer, a natural scorer. You just gotta give him the ball in the right spots. He knows I’m looking to pass it to him and he’s just ready to play off the catch, ready to catch and shoot. He knows I’m looking for him, same with everybody on this team,” McLaughlin said of how he impacts Nowell. “They know I’m out there trying to make plays and get them going, whatever I get I get within the flow of the game. Just trying to play fast and he did that tonight.”

McLaughlin’s quick decision-making infectiously permeates the lineup. That effect, combined with J-Mac’s elite ability to attack a defender with the specific intention of getting a teammate the ball in a spot said player is most comfortable in, does wonders.

Instead of faking a pass and taking a 3 for himself, McLaughlin quickly fires it to Nowell so he can get a clean look and Jaylen can see his first shot go down. While McLaughlin didn’t directly influence any of Nowell’s other buckets, it’s clear that Nowell had a higher confidence while J-Mac was out there with him. The former Pac-12 Player of the Year scored 12 of his 16 while the pair shared the floor, and evidently benefitted from the pace McLaughlin infuses into the game, something Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch loves about his backup point guard.

“Yeah, it was good. Just brings a pace to the game. Gets off it early. Makes all the right plays. Competes his butt off on defense,” Finch said. “It was good to see him back out there. We’ve certainly missed him.”

Nowell finished with a season-high +35 mark, shot 60% from the floor and dished our four assists without committing a turnover.

The steady play McLaughlin brings will become even more important when Karl-Anthony Towns returns from calf strain (hopefully) soon after the All-Star break. If the starters’ offense is understandably clunky for stretches, it will be paramount that McLaughlin and Co. steady the ship with runs and extended stretches of winning basketball.

“First of all, the starters have a different leash and the bench players have a different leash, so it’s definitely two different things. The bench is just looking to go in there and pick up on the starters, so whatever they do, we’re just trying to stay in that plus-minus of zero or push it up to plus,” McLaughlin told Canis Hoopus postgame. “We don’t want to be in the minus, so just being able to control the game and then allow the starters to go back in there and do what we do.”

In order for the Timberwolves to ‘do what we do,’ they need an explosive offense fueled by pace and a bunch of guys ready to compete around Rudy Gobert defensively. And now with Jordan McLaughlin back, they have the one player whose constantly plays into doing just that.

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

Turning Defense to Offense

Yes, the Nuggets were playing without Jokić, Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Yes, Denver stepped on the hardwood for tip-off less about 20 hours after completing their last game.

But, the Timberwolves still had to go out and execute against NBA players eager to prove themselves, and they played the exact type of defense that they need to replicate as often as possible down the stretch of this season: aggressive, timely, and calculated.

Minnesota forced seven Denver turnovers in the first quarter and scored 12 points off of them, all while not coughing it up a single time themselves. The Wolves followed that up with 13 points off seven more takeaways in the second frame, as part of a 31-7 run from the 2:54 mark of the first to the 5:54 mark of the second that blew the game open.

On that run, the defense played in the gaps, prevented interior penetration and forced contested jumpers, and introduced Michael Porter Jr. to McDaniels, who held Porter Jr. scoreless in the period on three shots over the Nuggets swingman’s 10:16 stint. The Wolves stole it four times in the second quarter, as each one led to a bucket on the other end for a total of nine points.

A rock-solid defensive effort ballooned the final tally to 32 points off 22 Nuggets turnovers, four points shy of the team’s season-high 36 (Nov. 5 vs HOU).

Minnesota held Denver to a 97.0 offensive rating (7th percentile) — well below the league average of 114.5 — while turning the Nuggets over on 21.8 percent of their possessions (3rd percentile; again, above LA of 14.3%) and posted a defensive rebound rate of 82.5%, their third-best of the season and best since McLaughlin got hurt.

Milwaukee Bucks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Trade Deadline Looming

Sunday was the Timberwolves’ final home game before the NBA Trade Deadline on Thursday at 2 PM CT.

Russell, Reid and Nowell are among those whose names have popped up in rumors, so it is possible one of them played their last game as a Wolf on the Target Center floor Sunday night.

Minnesota’s PG1 is a polarizing player and his performance in the win over Denver exemplified that. Russell scored (14) or assisted (4) on 18 of the team’s 32 first quarter points, but created just 22 and took only three shots over the final three quarters. While Russell was a +9 in that stretch, the way his production waxes and wanes is confounding and difficult to assess moving forward. He certainly has improved alongside Edwards and is becoming better by the day with understanding how to use Gobert’s gravity to help him both score and play-make, but his defensive breakdowns can balance the equation or turn it on its head, depending on the night.

Now that Kyrie Irving is headed to join the Dallas Mavericks, the move could bolster Russell’s trade market. The Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers both need an upgrade at the point guard spot and Russell could be a less expensive alternative to Fred VanVleet in free agency this summer. D-Lo’s play since Towns and McLaughlin went down certainly has presented an argument for keeping him for the rest of this season, and the team absolutely shouldn’t make a trade just for the sake of it. But with McLaughlin back and McDaniels taking the next steps as a tertiary scorer, the safety net is there if Minnesota does decide to make a trade.

Late in the fourth quarter, one fan in a section near the Wolves’ bench yelled during a quiet moment in the arena, “We love you Naz Reid... forever!” in case they didn’t get to do it again this season. The surrounding fans erupted into praise.

Matt Moore of The Action Network reported the Wolves are interested in signing Reid to an extension, and Yahoo Sports’ Jake Fischer added that Reid has declined various extension offers and wants upwards of $10 million annually — a very fair price. I wrote on Wednesday that extending Reid is a smart move in the interim and long-term, but you never know this time of year.

As for Nowell, Finch conceded during his postgame presser that while hasn’t been a perfect year for the microwave scoring guard, it’s not solely on Nowell’s shoulders.

“You know, a lot of times with Jaylen, it’s been hard to get him the minutes we would love to get him just because of defensive matchups and other guys that we have to play and try to play in a rotation, too,” Finch said, likely acknowledging indirectly the emergence of Austin Rivers. “So, you know, it’s been unfair on him sometimes, maybe not to get more minutes, at some parts of some games.”

Nowell did not speak to the media postgame due to time constraints. He also is a salary match for Nuggets guard Bones Hyland, whom Wolves President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly is reportedly still interested in after drafting Hyland out of VCU in 2021. Hyland was active but did not play Sunday, despite Denver’s severely short-handed roster, and is widely expected to be traded before Thursday’s deadline.

Next Up

The Wolves are back it with the Nuggets in Denver on Tuesday night at 8 PM CT.

After originally being slated to air as the late game on TNT, this contest has since been flexed out in favor of LeBron James’ pursuit of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Los Angeles. James needs 36 points to pass the Lakers legend. If LeBron can’t get it done Tuesday, his next chance would be Thursday in another home game on TNT, this time against the Milwaukee Bucks — the team for whom Abdul-Jabbar played the first six season of his career.

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