On Wednesday night the Denver Nuggets travel to Minnesota to take on the Timberwolves for what feels like the tenth time but is really only the fourth and final meeting of the regular season. Denver leads the season series 2-1 but both teams come in with identical 12-23 records and flagging homes for a winning season. The Timberwolves have lost three straight, most recently (and embarrassingly) to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Nuggets have dropped six straight, hitting the wall on a back-to-back by losing to Portland after taking Golden State to overtime in the previous game. Both teams might be getting healthy, however, as Emmanuel Mudiay looks like his return is probable for this game for the Nuggets and Minnesota's center Nikola Pekovic is listed as 50/50 to return tonight as well.
|SF||Tayshaun Prince||Danilo Gallinari||Nuggets|
|PF||Kevin Garnett||Kenneth Faried||Nuggets
|C||Karl-Anthony Towns||Jusuf Nurkic||Even|
Kevin Martin, Gorgui Deng,
Zach LaVine, Nemanja Bjilica, Shabazz Muhammad
Darrell Arthur, Will Barton, Nikola Jokic,
Randy Foye, Joffrey Lauvergne
Malone said Mudiay, who injured the ankle against Minnesota on Dec. 11, would be on a minutes restriction and would not start. Veteran Jameer Nelson has been starting in his place.
"Right now, my gut feeling is to work him in, bring him in off the bench, let him get his feel back after missing as many games as he has," Malone said. "That will also allow him to play against more second line guys, get a little more comfortable, get his confidence back -- not that he's lost confidence. But just to feel good out there.
"Then, if he's able to take his starting job back then we'll put him back in the lineup. But right now I'm just thrilled that he's able to practice and hopefully play. We have definitely missed him and it will give us a lift in our backcourt."
The most important thing for the rest of the season is getting the youth on this team healthy and playing together. Jusuf Nurkic will also be on a minutes restriction as he works back into the lineup so his time with Mudiay may be limited, but having Mudiay play with Nikola Jokic and Will Barton (and be matched up against Andre Miller and Zach LaVine) is still a good path back to success. It's a long season, but it'll get easier when everyone's available and it can be the learning season it's supposed to be for the Nuggets. If Pekovic does make it back for Minnesota in this game, then his wrestling match with the Bosnian Beast Nurkic will be entertaining as well. I'm looking forward to watching Garnett and Towns try to keep Jusuf out of the paint, myself.
The team that figures out its identity for this game should win it. The Nuggets have lost every game in which they lost the rebound battle. They are 4th in the league in offensive rebounds, which are devalued around the league right now as this great Zach Lowe article points out, but can be the difference in a close game. The Nuggets have forgotten their defense whenever they're tired, but with a couple days off between games they should have their legs for this one on both sides of the court. The Timberwolves are middle-of-the-pack in rebounding and beat Denver earlier this year when they also crashed the boards. The Nuggets will need to remember what they do well and play some end-of-game defense in order to take the victory.
Team stars still matter. Minnesota doesn't do any one thing especially well - they're not a great rebounding team, or a shooting team, or a passing team. They don't play steady defense and aren't really fast-breakers either. What they do have are a pair of talents on their team that can put it in the hoop: Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns is one of the more efficient players in the league and his length and offensive skills hurt the Nuggets in their first matchup.
Wiggins is more volume-oriented than Towns, but he has his moments - and is scoring 20+ per game this year. Barton and Gallinari are the 6th- and 7th-rated small forwards in the league by PER, and the Nuggets will need their scoring to offset Minnesota's buckets. Wiggins still is not loved by Hollinger's stat, coming in 14th amongst SGs (and about 4 points below either Nugget). But Wiggins can score, and if there's one thing Denver loves to do it's give up a ton of points to opposing scorers. The Nuggets will need to contain either Wiggins or Towns - and bring their own scorers to the party - to win the season series against the Timberwolves and finally end this latest losing streak.
Prediction: Nuggets 104, Minnesota 96. The Nuggets have the length inside now to lock down the middle for stretches, and Gallinari and Barton can make the offensive engine go. The Nuggets bench should match up well with anything the Timberwolves can put out, so it will come down to which team is more desperate. If the Nuggets aren't hungry for a win now they never will be.