The Minnesota Timberwolves got thrashed to the tune of 146-112 by the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night. Denver returned the favor after Minnesota handed them a 128-98 blowout loss this past Sunday, albeit without four of their five starters.
Nikola Jokić, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon combined for 74 points as the Nuggets executed a run-and-gun offense to perfection. Jokić notched triple-double No. 19 on the year in the first half, with 19 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists and zero turnovers. Porter Jr. had a career-high 19-point first quarter, in which Denver put together a 32-2 run to blow the game open. The Nuggets led by as many as 40 points, in which the game got out of reach after six minutes of regulation.
The Wolves allowed the Nuggets to shoot 62.4 percent from the field, marking their highest percentage conceded of the 2022-23 season. They also allowed Denver to move the ball, resulting in 44 assists — another season-worst for the Chris Finch-led ball club. They added insult to injury in affording Denver 74 points in the paint.
Anthony Edwards was the high point man for Minnesota with 19 points. It was overshadowed by a unilateral assault that took the air out of the basketball for the Wolves. This marked only the third time this year that the 20-point threshold was not crossed in a game by any Minnesota player. The other two times were against the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 14, 2022 and against the selfsame Nuggets team on Jan. 18.
Let’s dive into the biggest takeaways from the game.
7 Seconds or Less
Watching last night’s contest would make one think that Nuggets Head Coach Michael Malone was Mike D’Antoni in disguise. Incomparably, the most discernible theme of the night was the speed in which the Nuggets played. Jokić had 16 rebounds. It’s not so much how many boards he corralled — while impressive to say the least — but more so what he did with the ball immediately after.
Jokić would push the ball with a purpose after every miss. As a result, he was able to connect with players such as Porter Jr. and Christian Braun for fast break dunks. When he didn’t have a highway to the other side of the court, he made quick decisions in coughing up the rock to Ish Smith, Gordon and Vlatko Cančar, who all made lightning quick decisions with the basketball once past half court.
When a team plays fast, coordinated offensive sets usually take a backseat. When a team plays fast and two players can’t miss from anywhere, plays are rendered virtually obsolete. Anyone watching would notice that the pick-and-roll, while used on occasion, was not deployed with regularity throughout the first 34 minutes of play. This should have been one of many markers for improvement on the defensive end, but it did not take shape.
Gordon was a great supplementary playmaker. He produced eight assists. Denver was one band, and they produced one sound.
A Terrible Timberwolves Defense
The Timberwolves’ defense was not terrible. It was Charles Barkley terrible. After a first quarter where the Nuggets scored 49 points on 79 percent shooting from the floor and 80 percent shooting from the 3-point line, there was no adjustment made to the way Jokić was defended.
Jokić thrived in three areas of the floor. The first zone he owned was the wing — specifically the right wing at that. He’d catch in the half court set, and often times drive right, heading baseline for what materialized into wraparound and dump-off passes, frequently to Aaron Gordon for easy layups and dunks. When he didn’t put the ball on the floor, he found cutters. What was so flagrant was how open the center of the court was. The game broke open with a KCP cut that ended with an authoritative rim rattler. But, that would not be the end of that.
Smith got going off of misdirections. Porter Jr. got several easy opportunities by moving around near the boxes. The second area Jokić feasted in was the vicinity in and around the restricted area. He showcased textbook fundamentals in sealing off his defender his body and his arms, and finishing over either shoulder with his signature feathery touch. When he was fronted, he sealed off the defender to catch the pass and score. When he was played in single coverage, he got buckets. When the double came — infrequently at that — he found shooters all throughout the floor.
The last was from the other end of the floor, 94 feet away. Once he got a head start he was gone. Not once did the Wolves actively stop ball. Neither did they place Reid, Rudy Gobert or another player to face-guard Jokić the length of the court. Minnesota did not elect to go to a zone. While this may have opened up the floor for more outside shooting on the Nuggets’ part, a zone had the potential to shrink the floor and minimize all of the easy dunks that Denver scored on off of cuts.
Minnesota did not get back fast enough. Much of the night saw two on one, three on two and four on three breaks that were indefensible. Pride did not kick in after being down 30 in the first quarter, and the Wolves did not hustle back to slow down Jokić and company.
Or Maybe, an Incumbent Champion Led by the Incumbent MVP?
On the one hand, bad defense will never result in wins. On the other, a true championship caliber team clicking on all cylinders is a long night for any opponent. Every season has a game where the eventual champions make a statement. This may have been the night for Denver.
Even without Jamal Murray, the Nuggets floored the gas, swerved through traffic and beat the estimated time of arrival with time to spare. Reid put on display crafty handles early. He showed he could move his feet well on offense. On defense however, Jokić exploited his ability to keep up. Coach Finch’s apparent game plan was to place Reid on Jokić and have Gobert be the help defender inside. It didn’t work.
When Gobert was switched onto Jokić, he did not resemble a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. When Denver was in the half court, Porter Jr. was given free range to shoot from outside. Jaden McDaniels and Edwards did a good enough job of putting a hand up inside of 23 feet when Porter had a look, but he made some very tough shots inside as well.
Anthony Edwards the Lone Bright Spot
The Wolves started the game connecting on three 3-pointers. They kept the game close for six minutes before that was all she wrote. In 21 minutes, Edwards’ 19 points came on 7-11 shooting from the floor. The former Georgia Bulldog did what he’s excelled at all year long, and that’s drive to the basket. He only had one 3-pointer and four made free throws, so the bulk of his offense came inside the arc.
The Wolves as a unit were not sharp. The box score shows 12 steals for the Nuggets, but that does no justice to the amount of deflections that went out of bounds. Not only were passes off the mark, but all too often, a slasher would find themselves getting trapped along the baseline, whether it was Jordan McLaughlin, Jaylen Nowell or otherwise. This contributed to errant passes and a discombobulated offense.
Denver played a man defense, but their help defense was so adroit that it could pass for a quasi-zone to the foggy-eyed. D’Angelo Russell did not establish a tempo that could offset the high octane Nuggets offense. The only time Minnesota played fast was when they allocated a few steals in the second quarter prior to the Nuggets ball handlers crossing half court, leading to fouls drawn or deuces in traffic.
There was not too much that could be extracted from this nightmarish debacle that can be built upon. This game, perhaps more than any other this season, accentuated the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns. It also proved that a move may not need to be made by the Feb. 9 trade deadline to make the playoffs, but one may very well need to be executed if the Wolves want to advance deeply, in a year that’s up for the taking.
Russell getting ejected after a double technical foul may be one of the last snapshots we have of the former All-Star point guard with a Wolves uniform on.
Minnesota takes the floor tonight on the road against the Utah Jazz in their final game before the trade deadline. The Jazz are 18-11 at home, but have lost two straight and may be sellers at the deadline and hold players out tonight, the last game before tomorrow’s 2 PM CT trade deadline.