The Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2022-23 season is all but over following a 120-111 Game 3 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Friday night in Downtown Minneapolis.
Despite finding offensive rhythm and a defensive blueprint to generate stops in the second half of Game 2, the Wolves weren’t able to translate to a pivotal Game 3 on their home floor in front of a whiteout arena full of fans that created an incredible atmosphere for playoff hoops.
Target Center is ready for the Playoffs pic.twitter.com/N8E19KwINp— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) April 22, 2023
Anthony Edwards followed up a playoff franchise record 41 points on Wednesday with 36 points, seven rebounds, five assists and four stocks in Game 3, while Karl-Anthony Towns got back to his usual self with 27 points on an efficient 10/17 shooting, seven rebounds and two stocks. Even with great play from its stars, Minnesota couldn’t compete with a wonderfully balanced Denver squad, who had all five starters in double figures, led by 25 points from Michael Porter Jr.
Let’s get into the takeaways.
Exquisite Execution in the Half-Court
After a slow start to the first quarter, Denver tightened the screws offensively and dominated the game in the half-court. Jamal Murray, Bruce Brown, Christian Braun and Porter Jr. did a great job beating their defenders off the dribble, or running them into Nikola Jokić screens to create space getting downhill, where they took full advantage.
The Nuggets shot 16/19 (84.2%) in the short mid-range area (4-14 feet) and 16/22 from 0-4 feet (72.7%), according to PBP Stats, good for 32/41 (78%) inside of 14 feet. That is an astronomically high clip that very well could be the most efficient area shooting performance given the volume in the NBA this season. As a result, Denver put together a half-court offensive rating of 111.0 (84th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass) against a Minnesota half-court defense that has been elite this season, no matter which version of the team took the floor.
Comparatively, the Wolves shot 26/51 (51.0%) inside of 14 feet, and just 26/47 (55.3%) in the paint, where the Nuggets shot 75%. Even though the Timberwolves got to the free throw line 35 times (29 makes for 82.9%), it didn’t matter. Denver was too sharp in their execution scheming mismatches and ensuring all five players on the floor got the ball in spaces on the floor they feel most comfortable scoring from. When the Wolves tried to mount a fourth quarter comeback, they just couldn’t generate the necessary stops for their scoring to matter.
While Denver won’t shoot 84.2% on short middies the rest of the series, it goes to show that drop coverage is inviting trouble against a team with exceptional mid-range players in Jokić, Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Porter Jr., as well as Bruce Brown, whose floater was cash money. Rudy Gobert can’t solve everything, as we saw during his tenure with the Utah Jazz.
The reality is that the Wolves’ defense was built upon an elite perimeter defender at the point of attack — Jaden McDaniels — and an elite rim protector on the back end in Gobert. Without the 6-foot-9 McDaniels and his 7-foot wingspan navigating screens and keeping ball-handlers out of the paint, Gobert’s job becomes much more difficult, the rim is further exposed, and it’s much easier to make corner kick-outs and send the defense into scramble mode.
A puncher’s choice was the death knell in a series the Wolves now have less than a puncher’s chance.
Stars Show Out...
If there is one take-it-to-the-bank, absolute certainty to draw from this first-round series, it’s that Anthony Edwards is a full-fledged superstar whose game translates beautifully to the postseason.
The Timberwolves’ heartbeat struggled to connect early in the game, but drove it to the rim with great force and saw the ball go through the hoop at the free throw line to get him going. Edwards shot just 4/11 from the floor in the first half, but really got things rolling early in the third quarter, highlighted by an incredible chase-down block and coast-to-coast finish.
SUPER— Canis Hoopus (@canishoopus) April 22, 2023
From there, Edwards did a phenomenal job escaping ice coverage and double teams in the pick-and-roll by beating Jokić and Jeff Green to the rim, running out in isolation, and connecting on catch-and-shoot 3s. He even flexed his post-up game, too, before relying on his elite first step and burst to take advantage of mismatches and get to the free throw line in the fourth. Ant played the entire second half, scoring 23 of his 36 in the final 24:00 on 6/11 shooting and 9/9 from the free throw line.
31.7 PPG— Jake Paynting (@jakepaynting) April 22, 2023
50/40/86 shooting splits
Insane series from Anthony Edwards thus far.
Towns joined him in the scoring column after a very poor opening two games to the series. The three-time All-Star got his night off the ground with a couple nice post-up scores before seeing a 3-pointer drop and then doing most of his damage off the catch as a decisive driver. His aggression attacking the rim helped get Aaron Gordon in foul trouble for the third straight game and he worked well with Gobert to put continuous pressure on the teeth of the Denver defense.
Towns scored 16 points in the paint and shot 5/5 from the free throw line en route to a nice bounce-back night of 27 points. KAT should’ve had closer to 35 points if the Wolves would’ve played through him more out of the gates in the second quarter. Flanked by Jaylen Nowell (and shortly thereafter Mike Conley), Austin Rivers, Taurean Prince and Kyle Anderson, that quintet took a bevy of poor shots instead of working the offense through Towns as he was getting a rhythm. As a result, the Wolves found themselves on the wrong end of a 9-0 run and Denver claimed a nine-point lead
Gobert also played an excellent game on the offensive end. Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch ran more PnR tonight than in any game of the series, a clear directive to help weaponize the three-time All-Star, one of the best rolling bigs in the NBA. After scoring the the Wolves’ first four points, Gobert did a good job of freeing up Edwards with screens, too, before foul trouble struck and he spent final 5:10 of the half on the bench with three fouls.
As any good player does, Gobert responded very well out of the halftime break. He drew four fouls in the first 3:42 of the second half, getting the Timberwolves in the bonus by himself at the 8:18 mark of the quarter. He connected on four of his six free throws in the quarter, and made all three of his looks in the paint as well for a 10-point frame. Unfortunately, he couldn’t carry it into the final period, as Edwards was in full-blown takeover mode and the team went away from the empty PnR sets that set him up nicely at the rim. But Gobert did finish with 18 points, 10 rebounds and three assists, a great line considering he played only 32 minutes.
...But Get Left on an Island
Despite incredible efforts from the team’s three stars, the Wolves fell because they got next to nothing from their bench unit. Minnesota’s bench scored just 10 points — by far their lowest output of the season (next worst was 17) — on 3/17 shooting (17.6%), while Denver’s second unit was a well-oiled machine, scoring 29 points on 13/21 (61.9%).
It was a very rare poor performance from Anderson, who put up just two points on 1/7 shooting; while he did dish out six assists, his ability to drive and finish over smaller defenders at the rim has been a key component of the half-court offense, so the team definitely missed his scoring.
Nowell really struggled for the second game in a row, failing to score after missing all six of his shot attempts. After a strong connective performance in the 7/8 Play-In Game, including a few clutch buckets to stave off Los Angeles Lakers runs, he hasn’t played up to his abilities in the playoffs. While coming off an injury certainly doesn’t help, it’s unfortunate timing because of how much this team needs Nowell’s scoring and quick decision-making off the bench.
Outscoring the Nuggets in the minutes Jokić sits was a non-starter for the Wolves if they wanted to win (or even compete in) this series, but they haven’t done that because of how poorly their bench has played.
Regular season...— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) April 22, 2023
Jokic on the floor (2323 mins): +640
Jokic off the floor (1628 mins): -367
Jokic ON (28 mins): +15
Jokic OFF (20 mins): +14
Jokic ON (37 mins): +6
Jokic OFF (11 mins): +3
Game 3 through 3 quarters
Jokic ON (26 mins): +4
Jokic OFF (10 mins): +2
The Nuggets’ bench pieces fit perfectly within the flow of their dribble hand-off and drive-and-kick centric offense, while the Wolves are struggling to piece together five-man units that have played significant minutes together because of the injuries to McDaniels and Naz Reid.
While they may not be talked about because they aren’t stars, the injuries have crushed them offensively; McDaniels’ 3-point shooting has been elite down the stretch (and his off-the-catch game has been a big plus, too), while Reid was a constant source of offense late in the first and third quarters, and looked like the team’s third-best offensive player before he got hurt.
The injuries are the final two entires in the “shoulda, coulda, woulda” diary that tells the story of the 2022-23 Minnesota Timberwolves, ultimately securing a certain demise ahead of a seismic summer building around Edwards, McDaniels and Co.
The Timberwolves will attempt to get on the board in the series against the Nuggets in Game 4 on Sunday at Target Center. Fans can catch the 8:30 PM CT tip on TNT and Bally Sports North.