canada africa partner reservation Nuggets tested by Timberwolves in sobering Game 1 loss at home

Nuggets tested by Timberwolves in sobering Game 1 loss at home


DENVER – The most impressive thing about last year’s run to the NBA championship is how little the Denver Nuggets allowed themselves to be tested.

They were never behind in a series. They tied twice, once in the second round against the Phoenix Suns and once in the finals when they lost Game 2 to the Miami Heat. In both cases, the Nuggets were the better team, and not many people really thought they were in danger of losing the series. In 20 playoff games, Denver went 16-4 to win a championship. Last year’s Nuggets were a real juggernaut.

Defending that title is certainly within reach and certainly the expectation for Denver. That said, Saturday night’s 106-99 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves at Ball Arena was sobering. Losing Game 1 of a Western Conference semifinal is hardly a death blow. And for a Nuggets team that prides itself on its resilience, they view this as a series that’s just beginning.

What is clear, however, is that the Timberwolves will be the toughest team the Nuggets have faced in two seasons – by far. The Nuggets have never played a team with this kind of depth. With apologies to LeBron James and Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, they haven’t seen an individual player as good as the current version of Anthony Edwards.

Jamal Murray hasn’t seen the kind of perimeter defense the Timberwolves threw at him in Game 1. Nikola Jokic is the best player in the world, and he hasn’t seen the steady rotation of three big men who are all uniquely qualified to guard him that he did in Game 1.

“I can have a duplicate clone of myself,” Jokic said at the time The Athletics asked him what adjustments he could make against Minnesota’s steady rotation of big players. “That way, when one of them checks into the game, I can have a new version of myself.”

Jokic was tongue-in-cheek and elicited a hearty laugh from everyone present. But in this case, the comedy wasn’t that far from the truth. Jokic scored a team-high 32 points in 41 minutes of Game 1. But he went 11-of-25 from the field, which is uncharacteristic of him. He went 2-for-9 from 3-point range, a number that suggests he settled for a lot of jumpers instead of getting into the paint. He turned the ball over seven times, something he rarely does.

What we haven’t seen during Denver’s recent run is a team that can match them physically. In every series, the Nuggets have been able to exploit a significant physical advantage, and that physical advantage may not be there in this series. It’s compelling because the Nuggets will have to find other ways to figure out the Timberwolves. And if we keep things fair, the consequences of this became clear last year when Denver defeated Minnesota 4-1 in the first round.

By the end of that series, the Timberwolves looked like a team that knew they could compete with the Nuggets. But by the time they found out, it was too late to win or even return to the series. And without Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid, both of whom missed that series with injuries, Minnesota wasn’t deep or collectively talented enough to make the Nuggets sweat.

Anthony Edwards soars to the basket on his way to scoring 43 points in Minnesota’s Game 1 win over Denver. (Ron Chenoy/USA Today)

But last year, Edwards found out the Nuggets were having trouble guarding him, and he’s carried that confidence into this year if his 43-point performance is any indication. On paper, this makes Minnesota by far Denver’s most formidable game since 2022, when they lost to the Golden State Warriors in the first round. The Warriors would win a title. What it means is that the Nuggets will be under pressure to perform on Monday and will be under pressure in Games 3 and 4 to win one in Minneapolis.

“We have to make sure we’re never too high and never too low,” Denver forward Christian Braun said. “We are the defending champions, so we have to go out there and act like it. It’s one game in what we hope will be a long series. We just have to play well on Monday and play well for the rest of the series.”

What the Nuggets hope to control in Game 2 on Monday night is the way they defend. Frankly, they were terrible in the second half of Game 1. They had a defensive rating of 150 (giving up 150 points per 100 possessions) in the second half on Saturday. They couldn’t keep Edwards out of the lane. In addition to Edwards, they had Reid and Mike Conley make important contributions offensively in the second half. So even with Edwards’ performance, there was a balance offensively in Minnesota that Denver couldn’t live with.

Denver knows Edwards is something it will have to live with. Maybe the Nuggets can turn him around a bit more and make things more difficult for him. But Edwards is impossible to stop at this point. What could tip the series in Denver’s favor is how the Nuggets handle the other Timberwolves.

“Minnesota shot 71 percent from the field in the second half,” Denver head coach Michael Malone said. “71 percent in an NBA playoff game is unacceptable. In the second half I thought there wasn’t nearly enough discipline and physicality and I thought they could get everything they wanted offensively. Reid got to work. Karl-Anthony Towns got to work. Mike Conley went to work. And Edwards had the lead in the first half. I don’t think we had what we needed tonight. And I’ll leave it at that.”

The most concerning thing in this series for Denver is Murray’s left calf. The injury, a strain, originally occurred in Game 4 against the Los Angeles Lakers. Still, Murray was heroic in Game 5, ending the series with a game winner in the paint. Murray shot 6-for-14 from the field Saturday night and scored 17 points. He was held scoreless in the first half – the first scoreless half of his playoff career. It’s also the first time he’s shot 50 percent from the field in six postseason games this year.

In Saturday’s Game 1, Murray was in danger. He didn’t have his usual vertical burst. He didn’t have his usual explosion off the dribble. He hasn’t practiced this week trying to get healthy, but he’s not healthy. More importantly, he was vulnerable defensively, and that is more important than his lack of shooting. The Timberwolves put him defensively in every pick-and-roll play in the second half, which is why they were so good offensively. Murray was denied off the dribble several times by Conley, who at 36 years old doesn’t get by people off the bounce like he once did in his prime.

Denver doesn’t win this series without a near-prime version of Murray. It makes winning Monday’s Game 2 even more important, as there will be a three-day break when the series shifts to Minnesota for Game 3.

(Top photo of Nikola Jokic driving against Karl-Anthony Towns: Ron Chenoy / USA Today)